Empathetic Leadership: Key Traits of Effective Leaders

Empathetic Leadership: Key Traits of Effective Leaders

Most CEOs know an empathetic workplace benefits the worker and business, yet the majority still struggle to do so. What holds most CEOs back is fear that they’ll lose respect for being too empathetic. A fear stemming from an outdated pretense of what a leader should look like: tough, stoic, and always having the answers.

But the world has changed, and so has the definition of “leader.”

Workers today expect companies to be more empathetic. They want leaders, from the CEO down, to show vulnerability and transparency in everything from the policies they design to how they communicate. What’s more, workers want to feel seen and safe to show up for work as their true selves, instead of conforming to how everyone else talks, acts, and dresses. If a business doesn’t offer such emotional intelligence, its workforce will go somewhere that does.

In an EY survey of more than 1,000 employed Americans, more than half (54%) said they left a job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to struggles at work. Nearly half (49%) said they left a job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to struggles in their personal lives.


But being an empathetic leader doesn’t mean you cater to every employee’s wish. Empathetic leadership is seeing people as a whole person, not just their role at work.

If this feels uncomfortably warm and fuzzy for you, think of it as another way to gather data.

Because when you’re empathetic, you see situations from the other person’s point of view. Having all those different perspectives enables you to communicate with greater clarity, achieve better connections, and better determine the next best course of action.

The four qualities of empathy

Stripped down to its core, empathy is caring for the person, not just the output. Of course, workers show up professionally. But in order for them to do their best work and stretch to their fullest potential, they need to feel valued for their work and seen for who they are.

Nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman describes empathy as having these four qualities:

  1. Suspend your personal judgments. You can’t maintain an open heart and mind when you’re judging someone
  2. Take their perspective. Understand a situation from the viewpoint of the person experiencing it, without adding your personal biases
  3. Identify what the person is feeling. Recognize what the person is feeling and feel it yourself
  4. Demonstrate care. You’re not fixing anything, you’re feeling with the person so they feel heard and seen

Confusing empathy with sympathy is easy, but they’re very different. Vulnerability and leadership expert Brené Brown summarizes the difference in their value as: “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”

Brown said when someone shares something difficult, sympathizers try to make things better. For example, if someone revealed they just had a miscarriage, a sympathizer says, “At least you can get pregnant.” An empathizer says, “I don’t even know what to say, I’m just glad you told me.”

How to use empathy in leadership

Many leaders still think being empathetic is akin to being soft or weak, but that’s not true. You and a team member don’t have to spend 25 minutes of a 45-minute meeting talking about what’s happening in your personal lives or the latest controversy in the news. But you do need to recognize how external issues may affect their life.

For example, if you know a team member’s brother-in-law is gay, and there’s been an increase in anti-gay violence where he lives, you can check in by asking, “I know there’s a lot going on—are you okay? How’s your family?”

And if a team member confides they’re a bit unfocused because their father is in the hospital, you could reduce some of their stress by spreading some of their workload around the team and pushing back deadlines where possible.

Be sure to ask the person specifically what they're comfortable being shared with everyone. If you can explain, “Hey, Claire is dealing with a family emergency. Can you help give her some space by handling some of the work yourself?” it might help the team accept the added responsibility.

But if they're not okay having that shared, accept that you need to protect their confidentiality while still providing them the resources they need.

Empathetic leadership is about you and them having a relationship where you see them and they see you as someone who’s more than a title and set of skills.

Bringing your whole self to work creates authenticity and develops trust. Trust allows you to have stronger relationships, which can lead to vulnerability, disclosure, and sharing.

You can’t improve business performance without building these emotional dynamics with the people who do the work. Because trust and vulnerability help people feel safe. Then they’re open to sharing their most creative ideas with you.

As crucially, they become open to pushing back by saying things like, “Here’s where I don’t agree,” ”Here’s where I think you can be braver or bolder,” or “Here’s where I think you missed this important data point.”

Read: How To Build a Successful Team

Empathy as a key trait of effective leaders

If you look at any list of the top leadership skills for the 21st century, you’ll see empathy-related soft skills at the top. That’s because problems are getting so complex that they have to be solved in groups, said Maria Ross in a Barron's interview. Ross is the author of “The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success.”

In researching her book, she discovered that leaders “Can no longer be this lone wolf saving the day. And in order to have that group work cohesively and effectively, there has to be respect, there has to be understanding, there has to be listening to new ideas, and understanding different points of view. And that’s really what the output of empathy is.”

Here are four of the many ways people use empathy to lead more effectively.

Understanding the emotions and perspectives of others

Empathetic leaders do more than superficially acknowledge their employees’ desires, values, and different perspectives. People want to go to work without compromising who they are. They’re looking at how you treat them as individuals. For example, some people require coaxing before speaking up. And some prefer supportive roles where they don’t have any direct reports.

“Employing empathy in decision-making and people management enables companies to get the best from people by matching their skills and personal working styles to the best teams and projects,” said Rhys Cater, managing director at an award-winning digital agency. “It unlocks a better understanding of collaboration styles, and the underlying motivations that allow people to deliver to their full potential.”

Building trust and rapport with team members

Cheryl Fields Tyler, CEO of a management consulting firm mostly for Fortune 500s, said empathy stems from leaders who listen attentively, ask “really good” questions, and consciously try to understand other people’s point of view.

Through active listening, leaders build trusting relationships with workers and reinforce their support through actions that show they value the person. “It’s critical for business leaders to serve as role models for fostering connections that build trust and where people feel seen, heard, and valued,” said Fields Tyler in an interview with Business Chief.

Employees agree. In an EY survey of what employees look for in an empathetic leader, some of the top traits include being open and transparent, and encouraging others to share their opinions.

Empathetic leader

Encouraging open communication and collaboration

Empathetic leaders start by figuring out their own strengths and weaknesses first because through that self-awareness, they can be more humble and open-minded when listening to others.

April Simpkins, CHRO at Total HR, warns to watch your body language. “Be sure to give your full attention and avoid conveying via body language that your problems are bigger than a colleague's problems.” She also suggests being transparent in how you communicate. “Avoid the knee-jerk reaction to always respond with ‘fine’ when asked how you are doing.”

Being open and honest about how you are doing may encourage colleagues to open up about their own struggles. When you model open and honest communication, you begin to create an environment where workers feel safe, included, that they can trust each other, and are more willing to speak up because they know they won’t be punished for challenging the status quo.

Improving problem-solving and decision-making skills

Related to open communication is also admitting when you don’t know an answer. “It’s okay to admit when you don’t know, to share your concerns and frustrations, and to make mistakes, but also to share your hopes, your commitments, and your desire to create solutions together,” said Fields Taylor.

Showing humility and self-awareness tells employees that you’re human and gives them permission to be as vulnerable. The openness between colleagues may help them feel more connected, willing to improve, and eager to contribute ideas.

Common obstacles to developing empathy skills

Anyone can learn to be empathetic, but depending on the person’s background and beliefs, the path may be more difficult for some than others. These are some of the common challenges people face in the beginning.

It’s scary being vulnerable

At times, it may be difficult admitting you made a mistake or don’t have a solution to a problem. Going back on a decision can be embarrassing and dredge up deep-seated insecurities.

It’s tiring to care

People who spend a large part of their day giving empathy—such as healthcare professionals, first responders, and customer service agents—are especially prone to what’s called compassion fatigue. Author Wendy Cohan describes compassion fatigue as still caring, but being so exhausted yourself that you don’t want to share their burden anymore.

It’s not my problem

Some leaders focus on results and think personal problems don’t belong at work. But employees are more than their job. If someone is struggling with something that may hinder their output, you must know what it is to offer the right support.

It’s tough not to be judgmental

We all have biases and make assumptions. Sometimes, we jump to negative conclusions like, “He doesn’t try hard enough and he only looks out for himself.” But being judgemental may distort the truth of a situation and your ability to respond accurately.

Ways to overcome these challenges and continue to grow as an empathetic leader

While anyone can be empathetic, some people exercise the skill more than others. Ross likens empathy to a muscle that everyone has, but that might have atrophied over time. Because it’s similar to a muscle, you can build it up at the “empathy gym,” which can be anything from taking an empathy course to practicing specific actions until they become habits.

Ask better questions

When you catch yourself making assumptions, take a breath and ask more questions, then listen attentively. Remember you’re collecting data, so consciously remain open to the other person’s perspective.

Rob Volpe, the self-titled empathy activist, wrote in an Entrepreneur article, “Empathy is about understanding, which means you want to explore what lies beneath another person's behavior, perceptions, values, opinions, beliefs and attitudes.”

To that end, he suggests that you:

  • Keep your questions open-ended (can’t be answered with a yes or no)
  • Avoid leading questions (e.g., “What’s the best part of returning to the office full-time?”)
  • Don’t use the word why—it puts people on the defensive
  • Start sentences with, ”Tell me more about…”

Give yourself breaks

In his Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, psychologist Adam Waytz explained that when people feel restored, they can respond better to what others need.

It’s easier to feel restored when you aren’t on the verge of burnout. So prioritize taking care of your needs first, because you can’t help others if you don’t have any more to give. Consider incorporating these practices to maintain your well-being and build resilience:

  • Self-care. Do what it takes to feel mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy, such as exercise and listening to music
  • Set boundaries. Don’t let work flow into your personal life, delegate what you can, and set clear limits on your availability
  • Build a social support network. Have people who’ll listen to you vent and help you think things through

Share the load

Instead of empathizing with everyone, which can tax your mental health, Waytz suggests splitting the work between employees. Perhaps by assigning people to specific groups. For example, one person can focus on customers and another can focus on coworkers.

“This makes the work of developing relationships and gathering perspectives less consuming for individuals,” he explains. “You’ll also accomplish more in the aggregate, by distributing “caring” responsibilities across your team or company. Although empathy is finite for any one person, it’s less bounded when managed across employees.”

Coach others

In the HBR article “Connect with Empathy, But Lead with Compassion,” authors Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, and Marissa Afton advise that for many problems, the best action isn’t to solve it yourself. Sometimes, all the other person needs is to be heard and acknowledged. You may want to encourage the other person to contemplate a situation by asking, “What do you need?”

“Leadership is not about solving problems for people. It is about growing and developing people, so they are empowered to solve their own problems. Avoid taking this life-learning opportunity away from people by straight-up solving their issues. Instead, coach them and mentor them. Show them a pathway to finding their own answers.”

Strategies for developing empathy in leadership

It may feel awkward at first, but as your empathy muscle strengthens, you’ll begin to naturally apply empathy to how you speak, think, and act. These three ways can get you started.

Start with yourself

Start by identifying your beliefs and how they may cloud your ability to create meaningful connections with people. Then identify your strengths and how you can leverage them to show the person in front of you that you care.

Ross said, “When there’s a real commitment with leadership to start with themselves as people and build that individual empathy, then expand that out into the culture that they build…that’s when leaders can begin operationalizing empathy so that it’s intrinsic in their policies, procedures, rewards, and accountability.”

Advocate for others

In operationalizing empathy, Simpkins said that advocating for others is critical. “Work within your organization to create a culture that makes it OK to not be OK—and ensure that this is reflected in the company's policies and messaging from leadership.”

But don’t expect people to figure everything out on their own. “Give leaders time and training to understand employees as individuals and learn what caring really looks and sounds like: active, employee-oriented and engaging. And measure change, because care affects business,” suggested the authors in a Gallup article.

Create an open culture

You can tell people you have an open door policy and that they should feel comfortable coming to you with anything. But that might not be enough for people to feel safe enough to approach you.

According to an EY survey, employees say these are the top initiatives that would help them feel more comfortable talking openly with their boss:

  • Having regularly scheduled one-on-ones (45%)
  • Providing opportunities to give anonymous feedback (42%)
  • Participating in team-building exercises (37%)
  • Receiving frequent reminders that they’re in a safe space to have open discussions (36%)
  • Participating in training/communication workshops about having open discussions (36%)

Read: 5 Characteristics of a Dynamic Leader in a Remote Workforce

Empathy is not optional

Empathy in leadership is not just about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, it’s about seeing how they feel in their shoes to really understand what they’re going through,” said Grant Conway, People Director at Bupa Global.

Although more leaders are recognizing the importance of empathy, there’s still a large gap between how well they think they’re doing and what employees believe.

Take remote work for example. Nearly all (94%) employees view flexible work hours as empathetic, yet the option is only offered at 38% of organizations. And 92% of CEOs say their response on returning to in-person work is satisfactory—but only 78% of employees agree.

If you continue to think adopting an empathetic leadership style is weak or not business-like, consider this: If it’s good business to diligently care for the organization’s assets—such as the building, intellectual property, and brand—then doesn’t it make sense to extend that care to your people, who you say is your greatest asset?

Upwork provides independent coaches and HR professionals who can design empathy programs and provide training to you and your teams. Because Upwork is the world’s largest work marketplace, you’re likely to find the exact specialist who is familiar with your industry, geographic region, and more, and who can get started within days.

See how you can build your empathy muscle with help from independent specialists on demand.

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Author Spotlight

Empathetic Leadership: Key Traits of Effective Leaders
Brenda Do

Brenda Do is a direct-response copywriter who loves to create content that helps businesses engage their target audience—whether that’s through enticing packaging copy to a painstakingly researched thought leadership piece. Brenda is the author of "It's Okay Not to Know"—a book helping kids grow up confident and compassionate.

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