Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Empathy in Leadership – 10 Reasons Why It Matters

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of co-hosting the weekly #LeadFromWithin tweetchat with Lolly Daskal. The subject of my chat was “The Role of Empathy in Leadership” and I have to say I was gratified by both the level of participation and depth of contributions/insights which arose during the discussion.

Although I’ve written previously about the importance of empathy in leadership, I want to use last week’s talk as an opportunity to delve into this issue more, sharing some of the points I provided during the talk. Here are the ten questions I asked participants as we discussed the role empathy plays in leadership.

1. What does empathy mean?
In order to appreciate the role empathy plays in leadership, we first need to have a clear understanding of what empathy means. Most times, we tend to confuse empathy with sympathy; that to be empathetic means agreeing or relating to the feelings another person has regarding a given situation or individual.

However, what empathy really means is being able to understand the needs of others. It means that you’re aware of their feelings and how it impacts their perception. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they see things; rather, being empathetic means that you’re willing and able to appreciate what the other person is going through.

2. Why does it matter for us to understand the needs of others?
At first glance, this might seem a tad altruistic, but there are tangible benefits that are derived from making time to understand what those around us need, as opposed to what we perceive is required. Indeed, leaders who take the time to understand the needs of their employees can provide them with the support they require to press ahead, to deal with the challenges or issues that might be holding them back from achieving their goals.

By understanding and providing employees with what they need to succeed, leaders can build a sense of trust, thereby strengthening the relationships they have with their employees and consequently, the relationships employees have with one another, leading to greater collaboration and improved productivity.

3. What traits/behaviours distinguish someone as empathetic?
I’ve written in a number of pieces about the importance of listening in leadership. And how effective or intentional we are in our desire to listen to what others are saying is a key trait among empathetic individuals.

Indeed, empathetic people listen attentively to what you’re telling them, putting their complete focus on the person in front of them and not getting easily distracted by what’s on their monitor or smartphone. They spend more time listening than talking because their want to understand the difficulties others face, all of which helps to give those around them the feeling of being heard and recognized.

4. Can we learn to be more empathetic or is this an innate trait?
In the discussion that arose over my previous piece on empathy and leadership, I pointed out that contrary to popular belief, humans by nature are not self-centric or concerned only with matters of personal gain. Indeed, recent research into mirror neurons has proven that we’re wired for sociability and attachment to others; in other words, we’re driven to connect and understand those we interact with.

We only need to look at how the whole world not only reacts, but responds to natural disasters like those which struck Haiti and Japan to see that the drive for empathy is an inherent component of humanity.

5. What can we do to become more empathetic?
Given how empathy is a natural part of the human condition, our ability to demonstrate it to those around us is not as difficult as we might think. As mentioned earlier, one key trait of empathetic people is their ability to listen attentively to those around them. One way they do this is by paying more attention to both the verbal and non-verbal cues that are a part of everyday communication.

Making similar efforts will help you shift the focus from the story that’s in your mind to the actual message that’s being presented.

6. What role does empathy play in leadership? Why does it matter?
Let’s be honest, when it comes to the keys for successful leadership, empathy is rarely included in such a list. However, instilling a sense of empathy in how you lead those under your care offers a number of advantages:

  • Empathy allows us to feel safe with our failures because we won’t simply be blamed for them.
  • It encourages leaders to understand the root cause behind poor performance.
  • Being empathetic allows leaders to help struggling employees improve and excel.
  • Empathy allows leaders to build and develop relationships with those they lead.

7. So why aren’t we being more empathetic at work?
If it’s part of our make-up to be empathetic and that there are tangible benefits to fostering a sense of empathy within your organization, the question that naturally comes up is why then aren’t leaders taking the lead in making empathy a fixture in today’s business world. The most obvious reason (or excuse) is that the expression or recognition of any type of emotion in the workplace is still regarded as being a form of weakness (the rationale behind the well-worn phrase “it’s nothing personal; it’s just business”)

Of course, as is the case whenever there’s an examination of human interactions, the behaviours are rarely the result of one factor. Instead, it’s often due to a number of causes, which in this case includes:

  • Demonstrating empathy is hard; it’s takes time and effort to demonstrate awareness & understanding.
  • It’s not always easy to understand why an employee thinks or feels the way they do about a situation.
  • It means putting others ahead of yourself which can be a challenge in today’s competitive workplace.
  • Many organizations are focused on achieving goals no matter what the cost to employees.

In trying to address the apparent lack of empathy in today’s workplace, it’s important that we recognize that, much like an organization’s culture, it doesn’t come down to one element, but a series of inter-related behaviours and biases which serve to reinforce how leaders and their team perceive the value of empathy in business.

8. How can leaders encourage a culture of empathy?
One of the responsibilities of leadership is defining the long-term vision you have for the organization and establishing some short-term goals for your employees to attain in order to transform your plans into reality.

However, what distinguishes average to mediocre leaders from those who excel at leading others is how the latter group understands that their focus shouldn’t be simply directed to whether goals are achieved or not. Rather, their focus is also on fulfilling the collective purpose of creating something meaningful.

To accomplish this, leaders need to understand the inner purpose that drives each of their employees and aligning that with their organization’s goals. This requires that leaders be more open about their ideas and thinking and asking their employees about their thoughts on it. By spending more time learning about the needs of their employees, leaders can set the tone and approach taken by their employees to achieve their organization’s goals.

9. How can we use empathy to become a better leader?
By now it should be pretty clear that empathy plays a critical role in one’s ability to be a successful leader. But for those who might need more convincing, here are some of the ways empathy can help you to become a better leader for your team:

  • You gain a greater awareness of the needs of your employees.
  • Empathy allows you to create an environment of open communication and more effective feedback.
  • It allows us to understand and explore problems employees face and how to help them resolve them.
  • Being empathetic with your employees helps to validate what they’re going through.

10. If leaders could do one thing to create a more empathetic workplace, what would it be?
“Sawubona” is a Zulu greeting which basically means “we see you”. Now, this is not some variation of the royal usage of “we” in place of “I”. Rather, it’s their way of recognizing that how they understand what they see around them is a reflection of their perception that is derived not only from their own experiences, but from the stories and ideas passed down to them through their family and community.

Similarly, leaders need to remember that how we feel colours our perception of what we see going on around us and consequently, it’s important to understand those feelings so that we can respond and manage them accordingly.

It’s also important that we remind ourselves that the story we tell in our minds is different from the story playing in the minds of  others. It’s only through listening intently to others that we can begin to understand these differences.

As one of the pillars to developing empathy is being attentive to what others are saying, I’d like to end this piece with these two quotes which I think do an excellent job of capturing the very essence of the role empathy plays in leadership:

If you wish to know the mind of a man, listen to his words. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. – Theodore Roosevelt

Now it’s your turn – how would you answer some of these questions I shared above on the role of empathy in leadership? Pick which ever ones interest you the most and share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  1. On June 21st, 2011 at 10:19 AM greg | ascentive said:

    Empathy is an important quality that needs to be present in our leaders, bosses and managers. Unfortunately all too often those who are ambitious and rise through the ranks can often be lacking in the empathy department. A truly effective leader can feel what his employees or group members are feeling and relate to what they're going through; and help them get through it.

  2. On June 22nd, 2011 at 2:11 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Agreed. Part of the problem is that most organizations still use promotion to leadership positions as a means to reward/retain invididuals who demonstrate a high technical proficiency, as opposed to the ability and drive to help others succeed and thrive. By encouraging within their leaders an appreciation and understanding of the importance of such "soft" skills as demonstrating empathy towards those you lead, we might begin to see a shift in how we perceive and employ empathy in the workplace.

    Thanks Greg for sharing your thoughts.

  3. On June 22nd, 2011 at 5:40 AM Syed Moiz said:

    Great post, "Empathy" is the key leadership trait and a leader needs to develop it, practise and preach it at every stage of leadership journey.

    "On a journey leader is like a servant to his people" – Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

    By being empathetic leader assures his team that he cares, respects and recognizes the individual.

  4. On June 23rd, 2011 at 8:35 PM Delena Silverfox said:

    This was the simplest, most elegant definition of empathy, and a fantastic differentiation between sympathy and empathy. I have never been able to explain the difference between the two to people very well, so I figured I probably didn't understand it that well, myself. Turns out I knew the difference between how both felt, but intellectually couldn't explain it.


  5. On June 24th, 2011 at 12:17 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Delena! I'm glad you found this piece informative and helpful. Certainly, when we have a better understanding of the difference between being empathetic and being sympathetic to others, it should be easier for us to demonstrate empathy in the workplace as we now realize it's more about understanding the perception/experience others are going through, rather than having to agree with what they're saying or doing.

  6. On June 28th, 2011 at 3:11 AM @JenniferSertl said:

    Every once in awhile I post on Twitter:

    Compassion Required: Underneath 140 keystokes are complex people living complex lives.

    I feel especially on Twitter it is easy to get voracious about content and reading blogs.

    Let’s continue to practice empathy in subtle ways and ensure that we don’t objectify people.


  7. On June 28th, 2011 at 1:57 PM Jason Mitchev said:

    Empathy seems to be a missing quality in many areas, including leadership. My spouse has had great team leaders, ones that look out for the whole person, not just the part of the person they see at work. It has made a huge difference in the quality of work the team gives as well as unwavering dedication to the company.

  8. On June 29th, 2011 at 11:35 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I have no doubt that it does, Jason. It's easy for leaders, as well as employees, to simply categorize those around them by their function or role. However, such narrow constructs limit not only what we see of the person, but what we're willing to hear and understand about them. Creating such perception blinders not only makes it difficult to guide others, but it also limits your understanding of what your team members can bring to the shared effort.

    Thanks Jason for sharing your experience with this.

  9. On June 30th, 2011 at 1:55 AM Sindoora said:

    Great post!
    I think empathy is definitely important. The phrase ‘Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ wasn’t coined for no reason. Empathy will help you identify better with your employees. This will help you understand their strengths and weakness which can help in the delegation of tasks. Knowing how they function (and in what circumstances) will help you resolve issues better and ‘design’ your work and office culture as well. And sometimes, it can even give you a fresh, different, new perspective/insight to get work done.

    – Sindoora

  10. On June 30th, 2011 at 8:28 PM Bettie J. Brown said:

    I agree that empathy is important in leadership. Many people don’t have this character. It can be one of the qualities that a business can get success they want to achieve.

  11. On July 1st, 2011 at 3:52 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Bettie,

    I wouldn't necessarily say that many people don't have empathy. On the contrary, as I pointed out above, one of the common traits of humans is the ability to empathize with others. The problem I see is that we've educated ourselves into thinking that displaying or exhibiting empathy in the workplace is a sign of weakness and not something that can strengthen how we engage and understand those around us. That's the challenge I see here and one I'm hoping to help others overcome through sharing such insights both here on my blog and elsewhere.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this.

  12. On July 1st, 2011 at 7:26 AM Paul Nicholas said:

    Hi Tanveer – really interesting stuff – thank you!
    How pleasing that you talk of mirror neurons – why are so few people aware of them and their significance?
    Most of my referrences to them and draw blank expressions – which quite possibly I then mirror – adding to our mutual incomprehension!

  13. On July 3rd, 2011 at 5:50 AM sanji said:

    If a leader doesn't know empathy, he isn't fit to be. I like the way you put this, very nice! thanks!

  14. On July 3rd, 2011 at 10:30 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Sanji; glad you enjoyed it.

  15. On July 6th, 2011 at 9:33 PM Tracy F. Presley said:

    I really like how you posted this blog Tanveer…You did a great job!!Congratulations to you!!!

  16. On July 11th, 2011 at 7:59 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Tracy; I'm glad you enjoyed it. It certainly was an enjoyable chat and I wanted to be sure I could share some of the insights I gave during the Tweetchat with my readers here on my blog.

  17. On July 22nd, 2011 at 2:15 PM louise altman said:

    Hi Tanveer, Well I see I am late to the party, but I am glad I arrived anyway.

    What a clear explanation of empathy you have offered here. And I am so glad that so many people are recognizing the critical value of empathy in the workplace, where it is sorely needed. Sorry I missed the Tweetchat because there appears to be so many rich comments.

    I’d like to focus on #8 – Create an environment were ppl feel it is safe to express their true opinion.” – A tall order indeed, especially given the state of mistrust and cynicism in so many workplaces. I agree that a major job of every leader is to not only act empathically with all colleagues (and in the process model the behavior) but to develop a climate where empathy can flourish. We are all hard-wired for empathy and unless we have some structural brain or psychological issue, we can cultivate it.

    There’s amply neuroscience now that demonstrates the impact of empathy on self and others – and a great study done at Princeton Theological that demonstrates how easily we become “distracted” by our own needs and weaken the connection to our own natural empathic state.

    Great conversation, thanks!

  18. On July 23rd, 2011 at 10:35 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Louise and it certainly was an enjoyable Tweetchat and I'm grateful to Lolly Daskal for inviting me to be a guest so I could discuss this important leadership issue.

    I agree with you that it's a rare situation for many of us to have an environment where we feel safe to share what we really think and that's most unfortunate, both for organizations and the people who are a part of it. This goes back to one of the things I've written about elsewhere on my blog regarding how being an effective leader doesn't mean you have all the answers or need to be right; rather, a good leader understands that they need their team members to help them find the answers and that their role at the helm is not to ensure they are viewed as being right but as being seen as someone who others can trust to do the right thing.

    When leaders make that bridge of understanding, it becomes easier to create a more open environment because you're now determined to ensure you get the full picture, and not simply a reinforcement of what you'd like to hear.

    Thanks again for the wonderful comment, Louise. Glad to have you contribute to the conversation, regardless of when.

  19. On July 26th, 2012 at 12:40 AM rbalu said:

    A Good listener can become undisputable leader. That means you need to observe every movement of a person and interpret hidden or untold feelings correctly and provide suggestions or solutions before that become an issue.

  20. On December 24th, 2012 at 1:09 PM Paul S. said:

    I struggle with the empathetic listening not as a principle or practice, but rather as a solution to a current scenario in the large division I oversee. The solution comes from a recent consultant we engaged to see what negative workplace patterns exist.

    I oversee a group of wonderful people (100+), who have a strong worldview that one group complains/demands and the other group, (management), fixes. That management is the group to reflect and change and is the result of all negativity felt by staff. I almost have the perception that another series of empathetic listening sessions, could empower the demanding culture that exists within about 30-60% of the staff who are vocal. While I probably will still engage in empathetic listening sessions, the temptation is to 'set the course' and set the agenda that we need to move in direction x,y,z to survive, produce and thrive. Many of the issues that staff seem to want more listening on, are work practices they want to engage in and that could put their jobs at risk.

    Thanks for listening (with empathy). All ideas welcome.

  21. On February 3rd, 2013 at 4:07 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Paul,

    First, I'd suggest you read Chiara's comment below as there are some great points to consider there.

    To add what Chiara said, I think what your team would also need is to see ownership/accountability being transferred to them. That when you listen to what they have to say, you give the issue back to them by helping to guide what they can do, but leaving them to actually do what's needed.

    Granted, you might not be able to do this to the full degree that your team wants/needs, but several studies have shown that we don't need a large effort to feel engaged, but small wins that show us that we are in fact making progress.

    This would also help to address the tendency to set the agenda by leaving it to your employees to figure out how exactly they'd do, instead of simply doing what you're telling them to do.

    I hope this helps Paul, and if you need additional help/guidance, please let me know.

  22. On February 1st, 2013 at 10:13 AM Chiara said:

    Hi Paul,
    Your empathetic listening is picking up a concern about your team, that is they want to engage in things that could put their jobs at risk? Is this really true? If so, is their room for this concern to be discussed? My guess is that this is a gut instinct of yours. That needs empathetic attention starting with yourself. Tanveer's thread in this article is that listening and empathy are not separate. By starting to listen to yourself in an empathetic way then perhaps having an open discussion with your group about this concern, will lead you to discover why this particular situation is occurring. If there's a concern, follow your nose…Not sure if this fits…

    Great blog post Tanveer! You pointed to the fact that if an environment welcomes empathy then it will bread it. I have a sense that most people believe themselves to be empathetic. But, do not realize that they are influenced by their environment. When leaders are open to more empathetic listening, then there's space for coaching practices, leadership training, group listening workshops etc that can help them through this process. Paul you might want to hire Tanveer!


  23. On February 3rd, 2013 at 4:02 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    That's a great reply to Paul's comment, Chiara. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what he could do. I also appreciate the endorsement for how I can be of help; most kind of you, Chiara.

  24. On November 11th, 2013 at 1:52 AM Samantha Jayne said:

    Many capabilities in life are a matter of acquiring skills and knowledge and then applying them in a reliable way. Leadership is quite different. Good leadership demands emotional strengths and behavioural characteristics which can draw deeply on a leader’s mental and spiritual reserves.

  25. On January 28th, 2014 at 7:53 PM Mona said:

    Good post. I work in an industry where there is very little empathy, and it makes all the difference. I would also point out, however, that a lot of managers demonstrate "pseudo empathy" and I'm sorry, that is not a substitute for genuine empathy. Genuine is the key word here, and I really wish there was more genuine empathy in the workplace and in the world.

  26. On February 20th, 2014 at 12:38 AM Markus said:

    Great post Tanveer, I think empathy is one of the most important skills in leadership. Without you can hardly connect or relay with other people.

  27. On July 23rd, 2014 at 1:47 PM Ilane Vanessa said:

    Great read Tanveer! For me, empathy is having the ability to place yourself in an additional individual's shoes to know exactly how they feel. It is more than just paying attention, it is responding with understanding and recognition. As a business manager, search for possibilities to old your leadership abilities to carefully guide your employees.

  28. On March 25th, 2015 at 8:39 PM Brenda said:

    Any suggestions on how to get a boss to get some empathy training? Ironically I work in the mental health field where 90% of the employees are very empathic to our clients. However the supervisor has ZERO empathy for anyone. Talk about a misfit for the position. My coworkers and I feel unappreciated, and of little value to the company. Help?

  29. On March 27th, 2015 at 5:37 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Brenda,

    That's a great question you ask. The key to addressing this problem is by actually inverting how we approach it.

    Right now, you're looking at the lack of empathy your boss has from how it impacts his team. Ironically, what you need to do to begin resolving this is reframe it in terms of the impact it has on your boss. Specifically, on his ability to be effective as a leader.

    You see, right now as you point out, your boss has zero empathy which means he's not concerned about others; only his own position/authority/influence. So to get him onboard and to become more open to understanding the benefits of getting emotional intelligence training, you have to demonstrate how it will help him be more successful.

    Provide him with concrete examples of where this will help him, while conveniently leaving out the benefits you and your team members will get.

    Now, hopefully, through such training, he might increase his self-awareness of the impact he has on others and importance of empathy in his leadership. At the very least, it might make him show more appreciation to you and your team mates.

    Good luck, Brenda, and I hope this helps.

  30. On December 31st, 2015 at 12:39 PM jmagnone said:

    Great post. I agree with you all that empathy is key for leadership development.

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