Empathy In Leadership: The Good and the Bad

May 25, 2021

As businesses become ever more people-centric, we are seeing a shift towards skills and policies geared towards helping both employees and consumers. In particular, many firms have realized that the key to a successful business is happy employees.

We have seen a slew of policies that aim at improving their working conditions, but some of the most important ways to improve employee satisfaction involve soft managerial skills. Empathy is one such skill. Empathy helps managers understand the various challenges that people in their team face and provide tangible, people-focused solutions.

There are two kinds of empathy. Cognitive empathy means you understand other people’s problems, and emotional empathy means you actually feel what they’re feeling. This guide will explore how both these responses can be good and bad in the workplace.

Let’s dive in!

Why does empathy in leadership matter?

Each of your employees has their own unique experiences and backgrounds that impact how they show up at work, how issues affect them, and how they approach their professional goals. Managers and leaders must learn to understand the unique challenges that every team member faces. Whether you are a young ecommerce website with a small remote team or a large company with multiple offices, your management team will need empathy to solve problems.

An empathetic leader is one who not only understands employees’ struggles and issues, but also actively works to build relationships and make life easier for their teams. Empathy increases engagement from employees and leads to productive teams.

On the other hand, employee disengagement has tangible effects on company performance. According to Forbes, low employee engagement in a small business (250 employees or lower) can cost up to $3 million a year using the 2019 average salary rate.

Empathy at work is not just good for the employees, but also for the organization. Lack of empathy among the senior management can turn away a wider talent pool and drive your attrition rate up. It also hurts team morale and hampers productivity.

Successful business leaders know that happy employees are productive employees, which means that empathy is a vital skill for any leader.

The positives of empathy in leadership

Empathy in the workplace is a way to show your employees that you care about them, their progress, and their well-being. While employers overwhelmingly believe that empathy is a critical trait for any business, 85% of employees believe that empathy is still undervalued by organizations and that companies need to change the way they preach and practice empathy.

Empathy has evolved from being one of the nice-to-have soft skills to becoming one of the most important traits of a successful leader. In this section, we will look at the ways organizations benefit from it.


1. Encourages innovation and productivity

When employees feel that their struggles are being heard and their perspectives respected, they become more productive and want to go above and beyond in their role to think of new ideas and contribute positively.

Just how do employees respond to a working environment where they feel their organization cares for them? A study conducted by researchers at the Limeade Institute, an employee experience think-tank, reveals that a caring culture makes employees feel included in their organization. The same study found that a culture of care results in employee loyalty: 60% of employees are likely to stay for three years or longer.

Empathy helps humanize the leadership hierarchy as employees interact with leaders who understand their problems. It builds trust and is a powerful motivation tool. Employees are more likely to push the envelope and innovate if they feel a strong connection with their employer and the leadership team.

An empathy-centered workplace also helps create a more productive workforce as employers proactively try to find solutions to their concerns and problems. Empathetic leaders understand that when you take good care of your employees, the company benefits through better quality work.

2. Helps in collaboration

When leaders create an empathetic workplace, teams can collaborate more effectively thanks to enhanced understanding of and support towards one another. This is particularly important for teams that are remote, spread across time-zones, or have huge generational gaps. Focusing on empathy can contribute towards building mutual respect and understanding.

Studies have shown that people work better when they understand the positive impact they have on others. For example, an article by Harvard Business Review explores the phenomenon of cooks creating tastier food when they can see their customers. So if your team members can see the positive impact they’re having on their colleagues, customers, and the organization, they’re more likely to thrive at work.

3. Essential for diverse teams

Modern teams bring people from diverse backgrounds under one roof (or virtual roof!), which helps companies become more productive. By bringing more diverse perspectives and experiences to the team, managers can create a richer and more creative environment.

However, diversity in the workplace also comes with a few challenges. Conflicts can arise within teams, hurting productivity. Empathy can help everyone understand the different approaches and concerns of others in their team. When leaders and managers exhibit empathy towards others, they also tend to promote diversity, which in turn attracts more top talent.

Differences can be strengths when you build a well-rounded team through inclusive processes that support underserved populations. Empathy can be the key to tapping into the many benefits of a diverse team. Here, managers must lead by example and ensure that empathy and inclusion are demonstrated towards everyone.

Organizations are realizing the benefits of having empathetic managers leading teams. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, about 20% of US employers have specialized empathy training for all their managers, underlining the importance of this skill. We can reasonably expect this number to increase going forward.

When empathy goes wrong

While empathy is vital, it also has the potential to go wrong. In this section, we will look at the ways empathy can hurt your team. I do not intend to suggest that empathy itself can be a bad thing, just that there are ways it can be used in unproductive and harmful ways.

Here are three empathy pitfalls to be aware of:

1. Can be a fleeting emotion

Most bursts of emotion tend to fizzle out quickly. When you listen to a colleague or team member’s problem, it may move you emotionally but this soon goes away amid the bustle of the office and the distraction of a busy to-do list.

In other words, a fleeting display of empathy is not sufficient by itself. Managers should aim to seek solutions and follow up to ensure the problem has been resolved. Empathy without constructive solutions and the discipline to check in with your employees will not solve any problems. It can even make things worse, making people feel as though you are paying lip service to caring about them but without taking any action.

2. Can lead to poor decisions

When we give in to emotional empathy and base our decisions on emotion, we could be swayed to make a decision that benefits one but harms another. In his seminal work Against Empathy, psychologist Paul Bloom argued that empathy can be a poor guide for decision-making. It evokes an emotional response, often at the cost of rational solutions.

It is also possible that leaders may misinterpret the problem and project their understanding of the issue, making things worse rather than better. Often, we see cognitive empathy misdirected when leaders are unable to take into account that every person is different and instead focus on what they would do in the given situation. A mismatch can also lead to poor decisions that do not address the real issue.

No matter how well-intentioned your efforts are, too much or misdirected empathy can lead to problems. To avoid this, be aware of your own confirmation biases (selectively retaining only those parts of your employee’s problem that support your own prior beliefs) and then rationally analyze the situation and provide a solution.

3. Can impact diversity

While empathy can help you make diverse teams work better together, it can actually make it harder to recruit diverse teams. This is because people tend to identify with people that have similar backgrounds and experiences to them. Unconsciously, managers may advance and empathize with an applicant that is similar to them, leading to homogeneous teams and a lack of diversity. Managers should pay attention to any such bias and try to broaden their perspective.

4. Can lead to burnout

It is difficult to empathize with a lot of people at the same time, and trying to do so can take a toll on the person attempting it. For this reason, it can be surprisingly exhausting for managers of large teams who are trying to empathize with everyone.

While empathy is important, a level of emotional detachment from work can also be healthy. Managers and leaders must learn to walk this fine line if they do not want to end up suffering from burnout.

In Closing

There is no doubt that empathy is one of the strongest traits to boost employee engagement, loyalty, and diversity in the workplace. It helps create a team that feels appreciated and is able to work well together and contribute towards organizational goals.

However, empathy alone is not enough and sometimes, even the best intentions can go awry. Empathy should be accompanied by a rational problem resolution process and tangible strategies. Striking this balance will help you channel the power of empathy to create a happier, more innovative workforce.

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Guest Blogger