Now is the Time for Empathetic Leadership

empathetic leadership

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that a business cannot exist without its people – whether that be clients, staff or suppliers.

As leaders, it’s essential to turn our focus away from the ‘bottom line’ and towards our people, to not only come out of this crisis stronger, but to create a work culture that is respectful, thriving and even joyful.

Leading without empathy causes us to be dictated and led by fear, and we create businesses that are reactive. But if we lead with empathy and take a human-centric approach, we can ensure longevity and solidify both client and team unity.

What does it mean to be an empathetic leader?


Don’t confuse empathy with being “nice”, although this can be a by-product. Being an empathetic leader means being able to understand and appreciate another person’s needs, circumstances or feelings. Doing this means you can adapt your leadership style to a person’s unique circumstances and predict the effect of your decisions, which in turns allows you to strategise accordingly. For example, it can help you identify when to have conversations with someone about a sensitive topic, or whether to broach a subject in a particular way – such as one-on-one as opposed to in a group setting.

And it’s about prioritising wellbeing. By making the wellbeing of your people a priority, they will in turn prioritise your company’s wellbeing, and “give back” in terms of performance, trust and loyalty.

Without empathy, you can’t strengthen relationships or lead a high-performing team.

To put it into practice, here are five ways you can be an empathetic leader:

1. Find your Purpose


It’s important to be clear on what ultimate goal you are trying to achieve for your company and for yourself in order for empathetic leadership to have any real meaning.

Some of you may have heard of Simon Sinek’s book called Start With Why. If you haven’t, there’s a great TedX talk he did on the subject here.

Essentially, he explains that WHY you do something is more important than WHAT you do. It’s the “why” that inspires you and others. It’s the “why” that keeps you going when things get too hard. And it’s the “why” that surrounds you with people that believe in you and can propel you and your business forward.

This actually correlates with the way our brains work. The outer section of the brain (Neocortex) is responsible for analytical thinking and language – the WHAT.

The middle section of the brain (Limbic System) is responsible for our behaviour, decision-making and our feelings – HOW we do it, and WHY we do it. It’s why you hear phrases like “follow your heart” or “trust your gut”. I guess “follow your limbic system” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!

Having a clear understanding of your purpose can therefore help you to put empathetic leadership into practice.

By way of example, Legalite’s purpose is to empower and support people, through simplified legal services, so that they can thrive. This purpose comes from my own experience – of previously being stuck in “traditional”, and sometimes toxic, workplaces, and suffering anxiety.

In turn, it’s easy to practice empathetic leadership as I don’t want my staff to feel unsupported or like a “cog in the wheel”. In practice, this means I take the time to give my staff 1:1 feedback, foster a flexible work culture, actively involve them in important decisions and empower them to share ideas.

2. Practice Active Listening

In order to understand others and be an empathetic leader, it’s important to be an active listener – this is the difference between “hearing” someone and actually “listening”.

Being an active listener can involve:

  • Paying attention to non-verbal cues and body language
  • Listening without reacting or judgement
  • Asking open-ended (and not leading) questions to fully understand what is being said
  • Summarising or paraphrasing to demonstrate understanding
  • Not interrupting or hurrying people along

By practising active listening, people feel they are being heard, validated and respected. In turn, this helps trust to grow.

3. Lose the Blame Game


If you think back to your least favourite boss or colleague, chances are one of the most frustrating qualities was the “blame game”.

Recognising that everyone is human and makes mistakes is critical in practising empathetic leadership.

It’s also about putting trust in your staff and not micro-managing them, which can indicate a lack of trust.

To put this into practice, you can try:

  • Asking “how can we fix this?” when mistakes happen (which they will!)
  • Taking the time to understand what people’s needs are
  • Giving people the relevant tools and resources to support them

It is also important to guide staff on what they can do when they make a mistake, such as:

  • Encouraging them to tell you as soon as possible so you can workshop solutions together
  • Cultivating an open and approachable environment so staff feel comfortable telling you. For example, if you always work with your door closed, rarely speak with your staff face to face and are always seen as in a rush, it is unlikely they will feel comfortable coming to you
  • Making it clear that everyone makes mistakes (including you) and sharing these stories with staff
  • Consider the question “Will this matter in a year?”

Leading by example, such as by owning your own mistakes, can go a long way in ditching a culture of finger-pointing.

4. Put Yourself In Their Shoes


A key way in which to practice empathy is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

One of my favourite quotes is from the great Atticus Finch:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

Understanding people’s pain points, personal pressures, what makes people tick and likewise what motivates people is crucial in practising empathetic leadership.

It means that informed decisions can be made and more importantly, stronger relationships built.

5. Clear is kind


Being empathetic does not mean being a people pleaser.

To the contrary, it’s about being honest, even when it’s hard. One of the best things you can do for someone is to be clear and forthright with them – and don’t sugar coat feedback when you really need to be honest and constructive.

Being clear is also important to preserve your boundaries, and avoid being taken advantage of. This is essential to being a quality leader.

No-one likes confrontation. But feeding people half-truths or sugar coating to make them feel better does nothing for the other person, or you for that matter.

So how do you do this? There are some practical ways to have difficult conversations whilst being clear:

  1. Set the intention of the conversation
  2. Call out that it might be uncomfortable
  3. Be honest
  4. Hear from them – practice active listening!
  5. Be clear on a plan forward
  6. Check in with them a few days later

So for example, if you are starting to see that a team member’s performance seems to have declined, you could approach the conversation in the above way and find out if there are reasons for the shift. Being clear on a plan forward might then involve giving them extra tools and support to help them to improve.

Despite the difficult conversation, the staff member will no doubt appreciate the honesty and it avoids allowing poor performance to fester, or even worsen.

What are your experiences of empathetic leadership? How do you practice empathy as a leader? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!

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