Should You Be An Empathic Leader?

There was a time I thought of leadership requiring you to stand tall and stand fast. To be able to quickly detach from your feelings and the feelings of others. To be more detached than attached as a leader. Have you ever been there?

Baby yawning

Image By Tamaki Sono

Recently, my friend Brandon lent me a book called A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule The World by Daniel Pink. In the book he discusses the differences between right brained and left brained people. One of the chapters dealt with empathy and leadership.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the capacity to recognize feelings that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient (in fiction writing) being (via Wikipedia).

What does this mean to you? When you feel empathy, you’re able to relate to others. Seeing and feeling what they’re feeling.

Ever been in a room where one person yawns and you suddenly feels the urge to yawn? Ever want to cry while reading a tragic story? Ever feel joy while someone relates their story of success?

These feelings are related to empathy.

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
— Henry David Thoreau

Why Empathy Is Important In Leadership

Great leaders need to be able to know what their followers are feeling. They need to be able to look around and get a sense of the state of others.

Leaders also need to be able to sense when programs and projects are going well. This can be done through empathy.

When you can begin to relate and feel what others are feeling, you’ll gain a sense of the state of your team. Whether your team is doing well or if they need encouragement.

If you’re leading with empathy, these trends will be easier to spot.

Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn.
— Alice Miller

Learning To Be An Empathic Leader

Don’t fret if empathy doesn’t come easy to you. It’s something I’m still learning. And you can learn to be empathic as well!

Now, empathy tends to come easier for females than males. Women tend to be wired a bit different in this area as they’re normally more nurturing and in touch with their emotions.

This doesn’t mean men shouldn’t be empathic. It will just take more work for most men to increase their capacity for empathy.

To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground.
— Stephen Covey

Here are four suggestions to become a more empathic leader:

  • Avoid the need to be right: We all like to be right but when we fight to be right, we begin to shut off our empathy receptors. Instead, be open to being wrong and letting the other person be right. Begin looking at their point of view and why it may be the better answer. This will allow you the chance to feel what the other person is feeling. Opening you up to the opportunity to feel empathy with someone else.
  • Break down your emotional barriers: Over time we’ve built up walls and created barriers around ourselves. We say it’s for our own protection and that may be true. However, you’ll need to break through your emotional barriers and let others in. By becoming more open with others, you’ll have the chance to see how others see and react to the real you. By being emotionally open, you’ll begin to feel feelings you may have never experienced before. Empathy may be creeping in at this point.
  • Take notice of others emotions: Take time to sit in a crowded area. Watch as people stream through the building. Look at their facial expressions. Focus on their body language. What things can you learn? Can you spot a person who looks upset? Do you see smiling and happy people? Are there any other smaller clues to a person that could help you determine their emotions? Look for these things and make notes. You’ll eventually create a depository in your mind you can go to to determine people’s emotions.
  • Humanize or personalize others: Sometimes we block others by dehumanizing or depersonalizing them. We stop viewing them as equals or peers and instead we see others as objects. This needs to stop. Look for ways to see others in a real light. Human and frail just like you. Allow them to feel and be imperfect. You’ll be able to better empathize with them when you see them as equals.

Leaders need to be willing to connect emphatically with others. When you’re able to relate to others, you’ll be able to lead from a better position. One of mutual feeling.

Question: How can you apply empathy to your life? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • I score high in empathy in the leasdership profiles I take. One of the things I focus on is being interested in my team as people and their lives and families. They just want to know s

    • That’s a great trait to have Larry. It means a lot to people when their leaders begin to show an interest in who they are and what’s happening in their families. How do you show this interest?

      • Type your comment Really it’s taking time to talk to them and listen. Learning who their grand kids are or what trials they’re going through. It’s not hard. Probably my favorite part of the job.

        • Sounds like it’s all about building that genuine relationship with your team members. Keep up the fantastic work.

  • By thinking about other people. “Does this do good for this person?”

    • That’s a great question to keep in mind when dealing with others. It shows genuine concern. Have you ever seen this question conflict with a project as you’ve lead? How did you handle it?

      • Oh yes. Often times people don’t want what is good for them. I have found 2 good approaches, both depending on the other person:

        1. Do good like pulling off a bandaid – fast and done

        2. Do good by slowly lowering into a hot tub – nice and easy

        Either way, the good has to happen.

  • Great post Joe – Empathy involves feeling the emotions of another in your heart. In order to do this I have to slow down enough to enter into their world and listen intently. 

    Many struggle to do this because we’re standing there waiting for someone to finish their sentence so we can say what we want to say then get on with our day.

    Thanks for the reminders.

    • Ahhh! That’s a good one Michael. We’ve got to give up the fast pace and listen rather than rush. 

  • Thanks for this post, Joe.  I think too many people lack empathy.  Leaders often forget about the emotions and needs of their followers and simply become a “boss” or “manager.”  Empathy would near the top of the list of characteristics required for competent leadership in my humble opinion.

    • Exactly Dan. I think that’s why so many employees are less than motivated when it comes to their jobs. They feel it’s just another day and just another dollar where no one cares. How are you changing that type of environment?

  • Empathy is huge in leadership not only at work but in the home as well. Being able to put yourself in the shoes of your spouse and children is so important to understanding how they view you and their situation. That knowledge can help you better yourself as a person and a leader.

    • That’s convicting Grayson. I know there’s been many times I’ve shown less empathy than I should have to my wife. We need to learn to implement this into all areas of our lives.

  • I strugge with always needed to be right. I know it’s a pride issue and I know it has affected my leadership. There’s no room for pride in leadership and I know empathy can combat that, great thought today Joe. 

    • Thanks for being so open and honest Kimanzi. Pride is a killer and it overshadows the empathy we want to show. How can you work towards overcoming the need to be right?

  • I’m not a fan of micro-managing.  Having said this, empathetic leadership starts with getting in the trenches with our team members.  We need to develop an understanding of what they are going through.  We need to demonstrate to them that it’s more than words – it’s action.  Empathy starts with listening.

    • True words Jon. If we’re unable to relate to them, we can’t understand their feelings. How are you getting into the trenches with your team members?

      • Job site visits is one way I can work closer with my team members.  It’s my goal to get out of the office and into the field more frequently in 2013.

  • David Lindner

    I’m not a naturally empathetic guy. In fact, I’m so biased in the other direction I thought your title was emphatic not empathetic. 

    I do have do agree though, if you can’t relate to people and what they’re going through, they won’t trust you. 

    • You and me both David. There’s plenty of times that I don’t lead this way but I’m trying to make the shift.

  • I’d add … 1) Paying attention to the questions those you lead ask, because those questions are probably at the surface of deeper questions 2) If I was in my team member’s shoes, would I have the info and experience I need to accomplish the task?  Being empathetic is hard, but I agree, there are big rewards if you try.

    • Thanks for the additions Tom. Your point 2 really resonates with me as our company is going through a transition. There’s been some complaints that the company isn’t as open as we’d hoped and we haven’t given people the tools and knowledge they need to succeed.

  • Empathy allows a leader to better connect and have influence with others. I have not read much within this area so great job about bring it up.

    • Yes, empathy does allow us to connect better as it allows us to feel what others are feeling. How could you use this to lead better?

      •  I use it during conversations and when people mess up.

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