Empathy is the ‘ability to recognise, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person’*.

Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the book “Emotional Intelligence”, suggests there are 3 types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy: the ability to understand another person’s point of view
  • Emotional empathy: the ability to feel what someone else feels; and
  • Empathic concern: the ability to sense what another person needs from you and to take action accordingly.

That action is what’s referred to as compassion. In fact, compassion can be described as “empathy in action”.

Why is empathy important in leadership?

For a leader, the ability to convey empathy is important because:

  • It helps you understand the perspectives, needs, expectations and intentions of your team
  • It encourages inclusion and diversity of thinking
  • It promotes collaboration and connection
  • It’s a vital ingredient for establishing successful relationships.

Without empathy, your team and other stakeholders will see you as self-serving. That you put your own needs ahead of theirs. They’ll become resentful. They’ll question whether they can trust you. So they’ll put up barriers and distance themselves from you.

A lack of empathy is often the source of misunderstandings, unhealthy conflict and unresolved issues in the workplace, leading to a lack of productivity and low engagement.

The benefits of an empathetic leader

When leaders do convey empathy – when you clearly demonstrate compassion towards your team – you are far more likely to earn their trust, build positive working relationships, and foster greater collaboration making it easier to solve even the toughest of challenges, together.

Plus, by seeking to understand the different members of your team, their needs, challenges and frustrations, their personalities and points of view, you can start to communicate your ideas and information in a way that they will resonate and connect with.

What’s more, you can make a real difference to your team’s mental health, their sense of connection and belonging, and their sense of feeling supported during the good and not-so-good times.

How can you convey empathy as a leader?

Start by being truly present when you’re talking with your team, remove all mental and physical distractions.

Tune in to what you know about them. To their personalities, history and experiences. Tune into what it’s like to be them. Put yourself in their shoes so you can understand and feel the world the way they do.

Ask questions…but don’t interrogate or be too direct. Rather be gentle and nurturing.

Make sure you listen, properly. Listen to their verbal and nonverbal cues, their mannerisms and behaviours, not just the words themselves.

Then, where appropriate, take positive action to help improve their mood, their perception, experiences or the situation at hand.

Above all, remember, it’s not about you.

Conveying empathy as a leader is all about understanding your stakeholders, what they are feeling and what they may need.