Learn how to be a more empathetic leader
By: Sarah Rosenquist
January 20, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 mins
It’s no revelation to say the 20’s have been hard. The prolonged uncertainty, grief, and constant changes have impacted everyone in different ways. Because of this, empathy in the workplace has never been more important. And it isn’t just important to your success as a leader—it also impacts company success as well. Studies have shown that empathy is positively related to job performance. Empathy improves innovation, inclusion, and productivity while reducing the risk of burnout and turnover.
Empathy is one of the most important skills for leaders to have. Whether empathetic leadership comes naturally to you or not, it is a skill that you can improve. I’ve only just started this work myself and will always be a student. That said, I hope that these tips can help you along your journey too.
Understand what empathetic leadership isn’t
“[Empathy] requires stepping outside of your own needs, assessing and removing bias and privilege, actively listening to your people, and then taking action.”
Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic
First, empathy and sympathy are different things. To go beyond sympathy to empathy, you have to truly understand and feel something from a perspective that’s different from your own. Here’s just one example: As a leader, it’s probably fair to say you have more job security than someone in a junior role. That’s your privileged perspective, and it’s different than theirs. Empathetic leaders first need to recognize their own perspectives and privileges so they can effectively step outside of them and into the other persons’ shoes. That’s empathy.
“Leaders are so often so concerned about their status or position in the organization that they actually forget their real job. And the real job of a leader is not about being in charge, it is about taking care of people in our charge.”
Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last
Empathetic leadership isn’t lip service. It isn’t enough to have an open-door policy. This is where your privilege as a leader can actually help—what can you do to address the feelings your team is having?
This is where I’ve made mistakes. But it’s also where I’ve learned. Here are some tips on what to avoid:
- Addressing the surface issue instead of the root cause. When someone is overwhelmed by their workload, just take something off their plate, and it’s solved. Right? But what about when it happens again? And again? As a leader, you need to take the time to dig into the root cause of the problems your team is facing so they don’t keep happening. Sometimes a small reprieve is helpful, but if that is your go-to action, you’re at risk of depriving your team of opportunities and likely overwhelming yourself.
- Making promises to fix things quickly. This usually comes from a good place and can sometimes be done. But more often than not, addressing the root cause of issues requires deep investigation, consideration from multiple perspectives, and a detailed strategy for implementation. Explaining the process builds more trust than unfulfilled promises.
- Jumping to problem-solving and giving advice. You probably have good tips and tricks that have worked for you in similar situations, so this can be difficult. But your first priority should be to deeply understand what your team is saying to you. At that point, you can ask if they would like some suggestions or advice. Sometimes people just appreciate being listened to.
Go ‘back to school’ to learn new skills and perspectives
You don’t have to actually go back to school, but committing to learning new ideas and building your skillset is important. Just like you invested in your ‘hard’ skills earlier in your career, your ‘soft’ skills take training and practice. To dive further, here are some of the ideas and resources that I’ve found the most helpful.
Learn about psychological safety
When team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable, business results improve. Practicing empathetic leadership helps foster psychological safety, and you can start with these practical tips for leaders from Google’s re:Work. There’s also been more attention paid to this concept in recent years, so you may want to measure psychological safety on your team so you can see your progress.
Learn about vulnerability and practice it
This is a key part of psychological safety that could use some extra digging. It’s important for empathetic leaders to explore what hinders and helps vulnerability. Perhaps start with this TED talk from Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability and see where it takes you.
Start with active listening and then practice reflective listening
To contribute to psychological safety and become an empathetic leader, you really need to hear and understand what your team is sharing with you. They also need to feel heard and understood. These concepts can seem like a lot, so I recommend starting with these simple tips from re:Work and exploring further as you get more comfortable.
Read Radical Candor
This book addresses the balancing act that is empathetic leadership. There are lots of practical examples to help you apply the idea to the workplace.
This is already a lot of content to take in, and there’s plenty more out there. If you’re still hungry for more, take a look at other psychological concepts and thinkers—even outside of workplace psychology. For example, these tips on managing conflicts and difficult conversations in relationships from The Gottman Institute can apply to situations at work, too.
Give yourself the same grace you give your team
These practices I’ve talked about—stepping outside of your own perspective, intensely listening, and caring for your team—can take a lot of energy, especially when you’re just starting to build your new empathy muscles. To prevent compassion fatigue, it is important to also be kind to yourself. If you recently binged the latest season of Queer Eye like I did, this won’t be news to you. Everyone recharges their batteries in different ways, but these are some things I’ve found helpful.
Block time before important conversations. When you have a conversation coming up that calls for empathetic leadership, like a 1:1 or performance review, take time to get in a good headspace. Maybe it’s a quick 5-minute mindfulness session, a walk, or a couple of cute cat videos. Find something that fills your tank so you can be ready to listen, understand, and respond with care.
Build up your support systems. You’re caring for your team, but who’s caring for you? While friends and family can be a source of support, it can be helpful to go beyond that. Leaders in other departments or at other organizations can be a good source of support through their understanding of the challenges with being consistently empathetic in the workplace.
Invest in your own mental health. Even if you don’t feel like you’re in a crisis, speaking to a mental health professional is worth it (and hopefully your organization supports this by covering the expense). They can support you when you’re struggling and they can also provide their expertise in psychology. You’re caring for yourself while learning new skills!
Allow yourself to make mistakes. With empathetic leadership, you’re creating an environment where your team feels safe to be messy sometimes. That applies to you too! Acknowledge and take responsibility for the missteps you make with the team, but don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s human. It happens.
Like most of the important and impactful things in life and business, becoming a more empathetic leader is hard. The fact that you’re trying is already a win. And remember: I’m just learning and figuring it out too. So go out into the world and practice, learn, and practice some more.