Man and women talking at work

Improving leadership empathy

A softer approach delivering positive outcomes

5 minute read
Man and women talking at work

Businesses have long been focused on success, with leaders emphasising productivity to ensure results.

Productivity is a major source of strength in business, both for leaders and employees. It generates passion and energy, which fuels growth and assists in sustaining performance in the long term.

However, focusing on tasks and goals alone can compromise performance over time.

Now more than ever, it is vital for leaders to put themselves in the shoes of their employees to understand their part in the workplace.

As a result, workplaces are factoring in empathy as a vital component to ensure the needs of workers are met while also improving productivity.

What is empathy?

According to The University of Western Australia (UWA) Master of Business Administration Teaching Fellow and UWA Business School Lecturer Dee Roche, empathy is based on the concept of understanding.

Referencing The Centre for Creative Leadership, she said empathy was often mistaken for sympathy.

“Sympathy is typically defined by feelings of pity for another person without really standing in their shoes,” Ms Roche said.

“Empathy, on the other hand, refers to the capability or ability to imagine oneself in the situation – or the shoes – of the user.”

Therefore, empathy in the workplace is the ability to be understanding and sensitive to the differences, perspectives and work styles of employees.

Employees want to feel that their job matters but also feel understood and respected as an individual.

According to Ms Roche, for empathy to exist, relationships are vital both in and out of the workplace.

“Positive relationships are the absolute critical leverage for empathetic leadership,” she said.

Empathy driving results

Ms Roche said the people side of management was often seen as the soft and fuzzy part, with many businesses tending to adopt a more transactional leadership style.

Empathy, however, has always been a critical skill for leaders but it is now taking on a new level of meaning and priority.

New research published by Forbes suggests that far from a soft approach, empathy can drive significant business results and is key to innovation and retention within organisations.

According to Ms Roche, a lack of empathy towards staff results in a negative impact on employees and, in turn, the overall organisational productivity.

“In my experience, where you see the highest burnout is where there is a lack of understanding of the needs of employees."

“If employees are not treated right, generally they will leave,” she said.

Ms Roche said Great Place to Work – the global authority of workplace culture – identified what workers expected from businesses by uncovering actional insights of their employees.

“Great Place to Work looks at workplace culture – and, ironically, a great place to work is where we actually look after our people and we actually care about our jobs,” she said.

Empathy has also become important in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in significant changes within workplaces and, as a result, required leaders to help businesses recover from change fatigue.

“Businesses are shouldering big emotional burdens that require the leaders to really emphasise their communication, leading from where they stand, and understanding and being empathetic about the needs of the market, their workplaces and their employees,” Ms Roche said.

Is there such thing as too much empathy?

Though empathy in a workplace has a wealth of benefits, finding a balance is important to get the best of both worlds.

“Too much empathy can often cloud our judgement,” Ms Roche said.

“It may encourage bias and make us less effective in making wise decisions.”

This is the concept of tough empathy.

“We have to understand the needs of the workplace but we also have to drive business,” Ms Roche said.

“It’s that great balancing act.

“At the end of the day, it comes back to positive relationships, with great organisational culture driving results.”

Instilling a culture of empathy in the workplace

To support empathy, businesses need to instil a culture and shared purpose in the workplace.

“The most important thing is to enshrine a clear shared purpose and a set of clear shared values within the organisation,” Ms Roche said.

In order to do so, Ms Roche referred to the 2022 Gallup Exceptional Workplace Award, where empathy was a success factor and organisations adopted different strategies to encourage it.

These strategies include using organisational culture and values to guide business decisions and embracing flexible work environments while developing plans for the future of work.

Organisational leaders also focused on employee wellbeing by considering the work-life situations of their employees to enable them to perform at their best.

Ms Roche said it was important to talk about empathy in the workplace in order to signal its value, as well as modelling and informing staff of the importance of empathy.

“Explain that giving time and attention to others fosters empathy, which enhances performance and improves perceived effectiveness,” she said.

Listening skills must also be taught to let workers know they are being heard, and it is crucial to express an understanding of concerns and problems.

Leaders should consistently be putting themselves in their employee’s shoes and considering their perspective, taking into account their lived experiences while also solving problems and conflicts or driving innovation.

Compassion also needs to be cultivated to support workers to care about how employees feel and consider the effects business decisions have on employees, customers and communities.

Leaders championing empathy

Empathy is the foundation of treating others with acceptance and compassion, which starts with leaders prioritising empathy.

“Without a doubt, it is the most significant skill to have, and it needs to be developed and experienced,” Ms Roche said.

“Empathy skills help us to better understand common issues, which people may be experiencing.

“Leaders are coming to the realisation that they have to be far more emotionally attuned – they have to have a higher level of emotional intelligence.

“It’s really important when you look around and see empathetic leaders – they know their people, they actively listen to their people and they also reinforce trust.”

Leaders must model empathy to permeate through every level of the business, according to Ms Roche.

To develop an empathetic mind and connection with staff, there are essential requirements.

“This includes being able to recognise your own mistakes and of course correct, and being humble about it,” Ms Roche said.

“They validate others and want better perspectives from their people.

“They also need to be focused on employee wellbeing and acknowledging the whole person, enabling their downstream line to manage times of stress, and coaching and mentoring this into the workplace as part and parcel of the way we care about each other.”

“It’s the things which involve the way we work – it’s the way we speak to each other, it’s the unspoken ground rules.

“Empathy is simply demonstrated by the way everyone cares for each other.”