How to Develop Empathy in Leadership
How to Develop Empathy in Leadership

How to Develop Empathy in Leadership

Emotional Intelligence, Leadership Development, Company Culture, Employee Well-being   — 3 MIN


There’s no question that fostering a culture of empathy makes it easier to attract qualified job applicants. In fact, according to SHRM, 92% of workers applying for jobs look specifically for companies that demonstrate psychological safety. An organization that exhibits compassion and kindness is also likely to entice—and keep—top talent rather than lose them to competitors. However, in some companies, leaders could use some training to be more empathetic. A poll by Gallup found that only 3 in 10 employees feel safe engaging at work. Rather than attempting to approach their leaders about job concerns or work-life balance, many of them end up leaving for a more open-minded, understanding employer. 

If you’re seeing more and more employees walk out the door, it may be time to start developing more empathetic leaders. 

The benefits of having empathetic leaders

Empathy in the workplace leads to greater employee morale across the board. Because workers are engaged and feel valued, they are less stressed and tend to be resilient when struggles take place. 

But to build a culture of empathy, leaders must be willing to listen with an open mind and be ready to show compassion for their team members. The Center for Creative Leadership found that empathetic managers were viewed more positively by both their subordinates and their superiors. Here are some reasons why empathy in leadership is so important.

Empathy sets a tone

Empathy is contagious. When leaders show that they can be caring individuals, it sets a tone for the rest of the organization. Being empathetic then feels like the norm, resulting in better team cooperation and fewer interpersonal issues.  

Empathy builds trust

Retaining talent is one of the main issues organizations face today, largely because employees don’t trust that their managers truly care about their careers. In 2021 and 2022, a survey by McKinsey found that 34% of employees left their jobs due to uncaring and uninspiring leaders. When leaders become more approachable and can empathize with their teams, they build trust. Trust helps employees feel valued, and that feeling makes them want to stay where they are. 

Empathy increases productivity

When employees feel appreciated, they enjoy being at work—and they are more focused on doing their job well. Leading with empathy is a means to a more productive workforce.  

Empathy allows ideas to be shared

Employees feel comfortable approaching leaders with innovative ideas if they know their ideas will be valued. And when feeling accepted by management, they’re more likely to collaborate with coworkers to bring ideas to life. 

Empathy fosters creativity

When you blend all the previous benefits, you create a work environment in which employees are eager to challenge themselves and feel safe enough to take the risks that lead to true innovation. 

Creating a culture of empathy in the workplace

Contrary to popular belief, empathy is a skill that can be taught. Companies must acknowledge that an empathetic culture starts from the top, where leaders provide their teams with a safe, inclusive environment. By putting new policies in place and providing proper training, any organization can begin enjoying stronger leadership and more satisfied workers. 

Offer incentives and recognition for kindness

Rather than encouraging competitiveness in the workplace, companies should draw attention to compassion. Managers who exhibit kindness to their employees should be rewarded, perhaps with a gift card or even just a write-up in the “tell me something good” section of the company newsletter. Empathy often belongs to a quiet majority. Shining light on it can show everyone that it should be the norm.

Encourage leaders to “put themselves out there”

Leading by example is the best way to build trust. Managers should open up to their employees about the path they took to get to where they are, what motivates them, what obstacles they’ve overcome, and even where they hope to be in the future. Showing the human side of professional accomplishments and bumps in the road can encourage honest conversations among leaders and their teams, and motivate workers to share their aspirations. 

Ask for feedback

Employees want to know their thoughts are valued. Hearing their thoughts can be humbling for managers. By providing feedback surveys for leaders to give to team members periodically, organizations can identify weaknesses or challenges in leadership, or with the team in general. 

Questions can include: 

  • What do you like and dislike about working here? 
  • Is there anything you would like to see change?
  • Can you share some ideas about bettering our team environment?
  • What would make you feel better supported?

Feedback that identifies who answered what can be beneficial in improving relationships between leaders and direct reports. However, AllVoices found that 74% of workers are more inclined to provide honest feedback if it’s anonymous. If anonymity seems like a better fit, consider creating a feedback panel in which select individuals provide actionable recommendations to leaders based on cumulative anonymous answers.

Prioritize mental health

It’s no secret that employees get stressed from balancing work, illnesses, kids, elderly parents, and continuing education. Leaders should make it a point to show empathy in the workplace by asking regularly how they are doing to avoid total burnout. Open conversations can clue in management if someone has become a full-time caregiver, or is working on their MBA. And if an employee is willing to talk about their challenges at home, leaders are more likely to offer resources or formulate solutions to accommodate their needs. 

Provide emotional intelligence training

Leaders must learn how to create a safe and inclusive environment for their employees, and that requires bettering their communication skills, attitudes, ability to empathize, and other soft skills.

Blue Ocean Brain produces lessons that can help leaders improve emotional intelligence, delivered in microlessons they can dive into at their convenience. Regardless of where they are in their leadership career, these learning opportunities are an invaluable tool for them and your entire organization.