How to be an Empathetic Leader

Sep 21, 2020

An empathetic leader builds relationships based on connectedness and trust. Empathy is a brave choice because it requires a leader to choose courage over comfort by connecting with emotions within themselves that they may not necessarily want to feel. This also takes a measure of trust. Trust in one’s self and trust in the circumstances at hand.

Empathy is an inheritance within the reach of any leader to extend. In doing so, they communicate to whomever is in their presence that they are valued as a person and their thoughts and opinions are worthwhile and respected.

If you have ever felt grief, disappointment, fear, loneliness, anger, shame, you are equipped to be an empathetic leader.

Empathy can be communicated in the smallest ways, not only in how we listen, but also in what we say and how we say it, and how we ask.

The art of being an empathetic leader involves a genuine sense of curiosity and willingness to find our why people feel the way they do. So often we think it is our job to fix matters, but that is not always the case. When it comes to empathy the real job is to reflect back the truth of what the other person is feeling and to validate and honor their perspective of truth even if it is different from our own.

Leaders who show empathy through crisis, or no crisis, are the most effective because they show they are human, too. People look up to their leaders, if you are not afraid to show your emotions, they’ll do the same. This is important because empathy is infinite. The more you give the more we all have, with the added bonuses of greater collaboration and increased productivity.

Research tells us people desire to work for more empathetic organizations. Studies show 82% of employees would consider leaving their organization to work for such another. Employees are more committed when they work for an empathetic employer, with 78% stating they would work longer hours for an organization that cares about them.

All of this does not come without a cost, however, Being an empathetic leader requires letting going of being the knower in turn for being the learner.

Here’s How:

  • Take the Perspective of Another Person – Realize not everyone sees the world through the same lens as you do. Our take on the world is completely unique because our outlook is based on our own narrative.

    Part of perspective taking is also putting yourself in another person’s shoes to better understand why they feel the way they do. Consider their role, status, group membership in the organization; it all makes a difference.

    If you get stuck, ask them to tell you more.

  • Stay Curious – Curiosity is your aid to perspective taking and it also keeps you out of judgement. You are the learner, not the fixer when you’re taking perspective.

    We judge in areas of our own life where we are more susceptible to shame. This is why when we diminish our own pain and engage in comparative suffering, the more judgmental and less empathetic we are to everyone else, including ourselves.

    When you make a genuine effort to listen and seek to understand, people feel respected and cared for, and this opens the door to helpful action.

  • Hone Your Emotional Literacy – Read, study, listen, learn, feel. Just because we all have emotions does not mean they are not a complex matter.

    Understanding your emotions and being an empathetic leader go hand in hand. To understand the emotions of someone else, we first have to understand our own.

    Your body is a natural source of information. Notice what you feel and where and when you feel it and then have the courage to to be curious enough to ask yourself what lies beneath.

By and large, our most important job at any given time is to care. Remind people it’s okay to have emotions. That’s what makes us human. Encourage well-being inside and outside your organization by modeling your own well-being.

Normalizing mental health and showing compassion so people feel comfortable seeking help when they need it will help you and your team get through the current crisis and whatever else is yet to come.