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Empathetic leadership: Are empathetic leaders born or made?

February 12, 2021 - 18 min read

empathetic leader

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What does empathy mean?

What is an empathetic leader?

Why is empathy important in the workplace?

Empathetic leadership vs. other styles

Five traits that define an empathetic leader

Is empathy a skill or a trait?

Six steps to becoming an empathetic leader

Consequences of a company that isn’t empathetic

Benefits of working in an empathetic place

Final thoughts

Empathy is one of the most important qualities a leader can have, however, it is often underestimated.

The truth is an empathetic leadership style brings great benefits that can leverage a company’s success. 

Let’s take a look at the important role empathy plays in organizations and how you can become an empathetic leader.

What does empathy mean?

Empathy is the ability to understand and be sensitive to another person’s feelings, thoughts and actions.

 Essentially, it means being able to put oneself in the other’s shoes and imagine how they must be feeling in certain situations and why they act the way they do. 

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What is an empathetic leader?

An empathetic leader is one who has a genuine interest in his/her team members’ lives, the challenges they face, and their overall feelings. 

This kind of leader makes an effort to understand their situations and what they are going through, in order to offer support and help. Empathy is a key element of servant leadership as well although not all empathetic leaders practice servant leadership.

Overall, an empathetic leader interacts with others in a way that leaves them feeling safe and cared for, and as though they have a connection based on trust.


Why is empathy important in the workplace?

In order for employees to feel comfortable in the workplace, empathy must be one of the fundamental assets. 

Say you have two hypothetical workplaces...

The first one is a workplace that has a hostile atmosphere, where your team leader and coworkers are stressed out and looking out for themselves as individuals rather than for the team as a whole. 

The second one is a workplace that you look forward to going to, where there is a relaxed atmosphere where workers know they can rely on one another and on the team as a whole to achieve great things for the organization. 

Where would you feel more comfortable, productive, and motivated?

The second scenario sounds more appealing, doesn’t it? 

This kind of workplace is achieved through empathetic relationships between coworkers, amongst other practices. 

Moreover, an empathetic leader is a person in charge of promoting these kinds of relationships within the team members. 

So it’s safe to say that it all starts from the top, and trickles down to the rest of the organization: 

A leader that shows empathy to his/her team will have a team that demonstrates empathy and trust from the inside out.

This is why empathy is so important in the workplace. An empathetic workplace leads to employees who feel safe and taken care of within their organization, and therefore feel a sense of trust and belonging within the team. 

All these qualities are fundamental in order to achieve a highly effective, motivated, and productive company.

Empathetic leadership vs. other styles

In order to differentiate it from other styles of leadership, here are the five fundamental characteristics of empathetic leadership:

1. Motivation

This kind of leadership aims at motivating others to become the best version of themselves, and so they are able to bring that to their team and their workplace.

2. Communication

In order to understand where each person is at and be able to work as a collaborative team, communication is fundamental for this leadership style.

3. Support

The team members must feel supported and taken care of by their empathetic leader and their colleagues, as this will generate a feeling of safety within the team. Moreover, workers know they don’t have to feel on edge and as though they must prioritize protecting themselves, but rather taking care of each other and their team.

4. Community focus

Empathetic leadership generates a sense of community, belonging, and purpose. It creates a connection between employees that almost mimics a family, working together, having each other’s backs, and working towards the same goals.

5. A high level of awareness

A team that has an empathetic leadership style is a highly self-aware team. Their ability to communicate, support, and motivate each other enables them to have a great insight as to where their team is at and what it needs in order to achieve the goals they have set.

Five traits that define an empathetic leader

An empathetic leader is…

1. Approachable

This is a person who others see as a human being, who is there to interact with them and help them. Let us not forget that leadership doesn’t have to imply hierarchy, which is often an intimidating concept when one thinks about approaching a person who is at a higher level. Leadership is more related to being a person your team can look to for guidance and help.

2. Makes employees feel taken care of

An empathetic leader shows interest in their team members’ lives, their thoughts and feelings, and the challenges they may be facing. After taking the time to listen to them and evaluate, this leader will think of ways of helping them fulfill their needs to create a dynamic that works for them within the team. The empathetic leader models compassion and self-compassion and encourages it in their team members to strengthen resilience.

3. Involves others in the conversation

They are able to include the whole team in the evaluation of how the team is doing, sharing their opinions, giving feedback, and brainstorming ideas for how to improve or overcome challenges together.

4. Flexible

An empathetic leader is one who is able to adapt to others and validate other’s propositions and opinions. 

If a team member comes up with a new and innovative idea that could be incredibly beneficial for a certain project and communicates it to the (approachable) leader, he/she will listen and validate this idea, and take it on board if it sounds like a good one.

5. Motivates and empowers their team

An empowered and motivated team is a highly effective one.

This leader makes others feel like they have a voice in the team. He/she encourages employees to speak up, be innovative, participate, and take on new challenges. 

This kind of leader will also delegate in their team members, which creates a sense that their leader trusts and believes in them, and therefore empowers them further.

Is empathy a skill or a trait?

The answer is simple: empathy is both a skill and a trait.

It has been shown that empathy has a genetic basis. This means that within the empathy spectrum, there are people who are naturally more empathetic than others, because of their biological and genetic predisposition.

However, given a person’s predisposition, empathy is also a skill that can be trained to become a more empathetic person. Much like a muscle, that can be trained to get stronger and stronger, empathy can be trained through certain practices that help increase it.

So the next question is: in order to become more empathetic, how is empathy trained and practiced? 

Six steps to becoming an empathetic leader

1. Take care of yourself.

Mental health is underestimated when it comes to being a leader. 

Many people ask themselves “what does my private mental state have to do with my performance as a leader?” 

The truth is it plays a big role in how you interact with employees as a leader: if you aren’t able to show up for yourself, you will find it more difficult to show up for others.

Notice how your mental state influences the way you see things at work, the way you interact with your team, and the way you manage it.

Even empathy and compassion can leave you fatigued.

Taking part in practices that boost your mental health is a good way to start. Some examples are exercising, scheduling in time with family and friends, a good sleep schedule, and a healthy diet.

2. Use your eyes and your ears.

Be present with your team members, take the time to really listen to them, be curious and ask questions. Show them that you are genuinely interested in knowing them and their lives.

Also, look out for body language signs, and point them out. This is a great way to show that you are really looking out for them.

3. Set an example.

As a leader, your job is to also promote empathetic relationships within the team. 

By interacting with the team members in this way, you will encourage them to do the same. 

You can also motivate them to do so by proposing dynamics and activities that promote team building and looking out for one another.

4. Look out for red flags.

As a leader, you have to be incredibly intuitive. 

Your job is to evaluate the state of your team and from there be able to lead it and create a context that enables them to bring the best version of themselves to the team. 

When you catch a red flag that indicates that something isn’t right, bring it to the surface, talk about it and deal with it as a team.

5. Find the “why.”

It can be very easy to judge someone’s actions right off the bat. 

As an empathetic leader, try to move past initial judgments, and really listen to the reasons an employee has for doing something or acting a certain way. You might be surprised and find yourself with a broader perspective that enables you to act more effectively as a leader.

6. Instead of being a master, become a student.

A master goes through life thinking their way is the best way, and having no room for new ideas or growth. As a leader, you must learn to be a student, who is eager to learn, listen to new ideas, and implement innovative ways.

To achieve this, you must encourage others to participate and think out of the box, brainstorm together, debate new ideas, and learn from them.

Consequences of a company that isn’t empathetic

The truth is you can spot a company that lacks empathy from a mile away. Moreover, empathy within a company is seen both from the inside (the employees) and from the outside (the clients), and therefore, the absence of it is obvious when interacting with the organization.

The lack of empathy within an organization has consequences:

1. Poor quality in employees’ wellbeing.

As we previously mentioned, a worker’s well-being plays an important role in their overall productivity and performance.

A company that lacks empathy doesn’t take care of its employees’ mental health, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a company one can rely on for security and care. Therefore, workers feel overworked, stressed, unsafe, and are likely to suffer from burnout syndrome.

2. Selfishness within the organization.

If employees don’t feel safe and taken care of by their leaders and their company, they are likely to feel unsafe in the workplace.

It is a human reaction that when a person feels endangered, they go into “alert mode”, which means taking care of themselves to feel protected against said danger. And in doing so, they forget about everyone else’s needs, becoming selfish and unempathetic towards colleagues, which then translates to an unempathetic interaction with clients.

3. Low levels of productivity and quality.

It has been shown that people are more productive when they feel motivated, empowered, and happy within their workplace. 

But what happens when their company isn’t empathetic? The result is unhappy employees, who don’t feel comfortable in their company, and therefore, the company experiences a decrease in the quality of performance of their workers.

4. Less success as a company.

The sum of the consequences mentioned, put together, leaves us with a company that is seen as hostile, unreliable, and unsafe. 

This is experienced both by the workers as well as by the clients that interact with said company. As a consequence, this company won’t reach its full potential and won’t be able to achieve half of what it would if it were a caring and empathetic organization.

Benefits of working in an empathetic place

1. Sense of purpose and belonging

Employees feel part of a group that is working as a team to achieve the same goals. They feel included and appreciated by their company.

2. Motivated and empowered atmosphere

Workers have a relationship with each other that goes beyond just working for the same team. But rather, it feels like a relationship where they can count on one another, lean on each other for support, and lift each other up to become the best version of themselves.

3. Happier and healthier employees

Stress levels are significantly lower within an empathetic company, and employees’ mental health is of higher quality due to the work atmosphere they go to every day.

4. Sense of trust and care

Workers of an empathetic organization feel relaxed in their workplace, because they know they’re cared for and can trust their colleagues and leaders if they encounter challenges or problems that are difficult to face. 

Knowing their company has their back provides a sense of ease that enables workers to focus more on their duties and overall work, instead of protecting themselves because no one else will.

5. Higher effectiveness and productivity

An empathetic company provides a safe, trusting, and supportive atmosphere, which enables its employees to really focus on their duties and projects, and execute what they were hired for in an effective and productive way. 

6. Better outcome as a company

After mentioning the many benefits of an empathetic company, we encounter the result of them put together, and the greatest benefit of all: the company’s success.

This success is achieved by working from the inside out. Starting off at the empathetic leader, followed by an empathetic team and empathetic team members, which will influence their work and achievements, and therefore the overall outcome and results of the company.


Stay up to date with new resources and insights.


Final thoughts

Empathy is often overlooked or seen as a trait that isn’t important in a leader, and some go as far as to say it can make him/her seem weak. 

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as has been shown in this post: empathy is one of the most valuable traits a leader can have.

Hopefully, this post has helped you gain a broader perspective on the role that empathy plays in organizations, and you are able to apply this new knowledge to your own workplace in order to achieve a highly functioning, happy, and successful company.

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Published February 12, 2021

Alexia Roncero

BetterUp Care Coach

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