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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Johnston

3 Steps for Developing Empathetic Leadership

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

Do you remember being a teenager, and having a difficult time with something? Maybe it was the stress of final exams or a tough break up. Was there any adult in your life -a teacher, your parent, maybe a band leader or a sports coach- who didn't trivialize your challenges, but instead validated and supported you through them?

If the answer is "yes" then you're lucky enough to have experienced empathetic leadership. So while some may think of this term as the latest corporate buzzword, it's actually a practice that has existed among stellar leaders for centuries.

If you currently lead people in the workplace, the key to developing your empathetic leadership skills is as simple as 1, 2, 3. But remember that simple doesn't always mean easy. Like any new skill, changing our leadership style requires a lot of internal work. The the good news here is that it begins with You, and you're in control of it! So if you're ready - let's dive in.

Step #1: Determine what empathetic leadership is -and isn't

Empathy isn't about mind reading, but it is about connecting emotionally to what your staff are going through. Empathy is also not sympathy. Sympathy says "I feel badly for you", while empathy says "I understand why you're feeling this way in this situation.".

Having empathy is not the same thing as demonstrating empathy. -Center for Creative Leadership Whitepaper

Regardless of age, being in a management position at work is a similar dynamic to the adults in your life, when you were a teen. If someone pitied you because you were suffering through a break-up (which, let's be honest: feels almost fatal at that age!) that wouldn't have helped you one bit. And in some cases, it feels patronizing and makes you feel 'small'. But when someone empathizes with our challenges, there is a sense of comradery and connection we feel towards that individual.

TLDR: Sympathy distances us from someone's hardship; empathy creates deeper connection to someone, via their hardship.


Step #2: Learn why empathetic leadership is so important

Quote by Human Dynamics Training owner, Andrea Johnston. It reads: When staff feel supported by leaders, they will give more of themselves to the organization, not less.

From business innovation to employee retention, almost all KPI's for a strong organization are impacted by good leadership. This has always been the case, but it's even more prominent at this point in the pandemic. The added stress and physical disconnection of so many workplaces has left many managers holding the bag to try and maintain productive communication and team work.

Often, there is a concern that if a leader is 'too nice' then their staff will start to take advantage of them and the company. But how come the opposite fear is rarely addressed? The fear that an uncaring leader will cost insurmountable damage and derail organizational efforts, due to the compounding negative impact of their relationship with their team. Remember: people don't leave bad jobs - they leave bad managers!

Accountability is an important skill to have as a leader. And it is not mutually exclusive to the skill of empathy. Leaders who understand how to support their staff are ones who lead incredibly successful teams, regardless of how much skill or talent they're given to work with.

TLDR: A leader's primary job is to take care of the people on their team, so the people can take care of the tasks. The better you support your staff's needs, the better equipped they are to complete their job.


Step #3: Examine the barrier(s) you have that stop empathy

Most people want to do well at their jobs. So if a leader understands what empathy in the workplace is and why it's important, they're 2/3 of the way to reaching their end result. But the barrier that's holding you back is likely one of the following reasons:

  • You don't yet understand how to be empathetic.

Empathy is a vital skill; in life and in business. But that doesn't mean it comes naturally to everyone. In fact, many business leaders have been very successful without executing this skill. The difference now is the shift in workplace cultures and the desire to achieve success in the future. If you're willing, but not yet able, to implement an empathetic leadership style within your organization, it's time to read, listen and learn. Know that you have some work ahead but this work will pay dividends when it comes to the transformation of your team and your organization.

  • You're waiting for someone above your paygrade to show empathy first.

If your hurdle is this notion that someone higher up in the organization needs to take the first step, then you're grossly underestimating the influence and impact you have on the folks who report to you! Empathetic leadership is about meeting the individual needs of the people on your team. No other position in the org chart knows these folks like you do. Nor do they have as much interaction with them on a regular basis. Not even HR! The responsibility for implementing empathetic leadership lies with each leader, individually.

  • You're embarrassed or worried to be seen as a "fluff n' puff" leader.

Remember back in grade school when the 'try hard' students got labelled as the Teacher's pet? Well work is not school. And if you're old enough to be in a position of leadership, then it's fair to say it's been a few years since grade school too. Being worried about what other people think is normal. Unfortunately, it's also what holds us back from growing into the kind of person we want to be. If changing your leadership style to incorporate empathy doesn't seem like a strong enough motivator, try reframing things. Instead of focusing on the change of your leadership style, think about how you can achieve greater results for yourself, your team and your company . . . and use empathetic leadership as the way to get there.

TLDR: It's okay to get tactical here. First, figure out what's holding you back. Second, implement a solution to solve that problem. Lastly, become the empathetic leader your people are longing to work for!


The wonderful thing about empathetic leadership, is that you don't have to wait for anyone in order to start implementing this change. No approvals - no red tape. It's all up to you! The bad news about empathetic leadership is that it's all up to you! No one can learn or implement this for you. But there are endless resources and support available to help you along this journey.

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