Why Empathy in Leadership is Non-Negotiable

June 22, 2020

Ashley Meyer

Ashley Meyer

If you Google leadership and read up on the current trends, you won’t have to look far before you bump into the first piece that emphasizes the role empathy plays in effective leadership.


If you are thinking to yourself that this is a new trend, you would be right… well, kind of.

There’s no question that empathy in leadership has always existed in some capacity, but the emphasis on its value to leading teams and the attention being given to it is new. With authors like Brene Brown and Simon Sinek leading the way with books and talks on the importance of the some of the “soft skills” of leadership, the national spotlight has found its way to how critical empathy is – and we are all better for it.

A quick Google search will show that empathy is defined by Oxford Languages as “the ability to understand and share in the feelings of others”. Admittedly, that sounds like something you might hear if Lifetime put together a PSA on leadership. However, as someone whose favorite leadership book is Extreme Ownership, a book written by Marines demonstrating the similarities between armed conflict and leadership, I can tell you that empathy is a critical component to my leadership beliefs.

Maybe it isn’t part of your leadership focus yet, I get that, it’s not super obvious when you think about leadership. When people think leadership, they usually think inspiring, innovative ideas, passion and the ability to command a room. If that is how you think about leadership, you aren’t alone, but it’s time for you to start incorporating empathy into your leadership book of skills.

Emotionally Safe Teams Function Better

There isn’t a leader alive that doesn’t want their team to function better or be more effective. That seems like an obvious statement, but it is foundational to begin leading this way. Most of us have heard about a little spunky startup that goes by the name of Google. Kidding aside, Google has had a tremendous amount of success over the last couple of decades and that is due, in part, to their innovation.

At the heart of innovation is making sure you have the talent to come up with and bring ideas to life, as well as having great teams that are able to execute on these ideas. Google, wanting to know what makes a great team, embarked on a two year study to find out what the secret sauce was to having a high performing team. Guess what they found?

The result was that the highest performing teams at Google all had one thing in common, the members of the team felt psychologically safe. These teams felt secure in sharing ideas and worries and knew they were able to do this without being judged or criticized when they shared. Guess what one of the key ingredients is in making an environment like this? Leaders who have high levels of empathy.

I don’t know about you, but I love it when things come full circle. Leaders who are able to demonstrate empathy are able to create environments where their people feel safe and are thus able to operate at a higher level consistently. Anyone who has ever worked in a high functioning team and has also been part of a “team” where there is backstabbing with an “everyone for themselves” mentality can tell you there is a massive difference between the two. That tone is set by the leader of a team and if you hope to have an environment that feels emotionally safe, your employees are going to need to see you demonstrate empathy.

Inspire Loyalty

One of the main reasons people leave organizations is due to a lack of trust with leadership and a clear lack of appreciation. This isn’t a surprise when you think about it because trust is a fundamental piece of any relationship. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I can’t trust my partner, our relationship is great!”?

My assumption is you probably haven’t heard that because trust is essential. One of the best ways to build trust is by demonstrating empathy. As a leader, putting yourself in the shoes of the people you manage, hearing their concerns and creating an environment where they know they can come to you and depend on your reaction is critical. By using empathy, you can create an environment of emotional consistency and dependability, which goes hand in hand with trust.

In a recent study by Training Industry, 90% of employees polled stated they are more likely to stay with an empathetic leader. We all know that talent attraction is expensive. There has never been a talent market in which the top performing people are openly available. Getting the best people is hard – it is costly and losing them can be devastating to a team, a department and in large enough scale, a company. No leader goes into work hoping their best person walks into their office and hands in their two-week notice.

The Compound Effects of Empathy

As a team leader, I absolutely want my people to be happier, more productive and ultimately stay with the organization longer. I also would hate to be responsible for creating an environment where my people don’t trust me, thereby making them less effective and causing them to leave the company sooner. It doesn’t matter how effective I am at other components of my job if the outcome is that my employees are disengaged and demotivated.

Having a happy, motivated and effective team that will stay intact for a longer period of time is what we all strive for as leaders. And since that is the case, every organization should want empathetic leaders who put in the effort to not only strive towards those goals but strive to create an environment with employee well-being in mind. That starts with empathy.


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