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What does it mean to lead with empathy? Why is empathy critical for managers to exhibit?

Out of all the skills needed to lead, empathy is the most important. Employees want an empathetic leader who understands their feelings, communicates with them, and makes them feel seen at work. Without empathy, your company will be a cold environment that doesn’t drive results.

Let’s look at how leading with empathy impacts work, and how you can be an empathetic leader.

Why Empathy Is the Most Important Leadership Skill

Empathy is a fundamental people skill, allowing us to interpret what others want or need. This skill is especially important in what the author of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, refers to as the “caring professions,” such as sales, management, or teaching. 

How well you identify your own and others’ emotions ultimately makes you a better person. Empathy is the root of altruism—people who can’t sense or understand another person’s needs or anguish ultimately don’t care what happens to that other person. Empathy changes the way you look at the world: when other people are in pain, you work to understand their pain and help them through it. You also work not to cause people pain: this is where morals and morality begin.

The lower someone’s capacity for empathy, the less likely they are to identify with suffering that they cannot understand, and the more likely they do not view that suffering as a moral question.

How to Be an Empathetic Leader

Being an empathetic leader requires examining your own role in the company and being a model example to others. To make sure you don’t fail as a leader, we’ll look at four ways to lead with empathy.

1. Provide a Nurturing Environment

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz and Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson both discuss how providing a nurturing environment is an important proponent of empathetic leadership. 

Take care of the people, and the products and profits will follow. If you reverse the priorities, you’ll end up with a miserable workplace and possibly sabotage your success.

You can best take care of your people by making your company a good place to work. In Horowitz’s terms, in a good place to work:

  • People are clear on what their jobs are and how success is measured.
  • People believe their work makes a difference in the success of the company and, by extension, in their personal success.
  • They have as few barriers to getting work done as possible. A good work environment avoids office politics, infighting, and overly bureaucratic processes, which all get in the way of doing good work.
  • People enjoy working with the people around them. They don’t always have to like each other personally, but they respect that everyone is pulling their weight.

A poor place to work inverts all of these. People aren’t clear about what their jobs are; they don’t know if their work means anything; their work gets stymied by dumb obstacles, and people despise whom they work with.

A great company culture develops over time through consistent positive actions, not by installing foosball tables or espresso machines. If managers treat their employees kindly, kindness will become part of the company culture. If employees leave work daily at 5 p.m., then a healthy work/life balance becomes the norm. 

Focus your energies on creating an environment in which every employee can do his or her best work. Even a mediocre employee can do outstanding work in a nurturing environment. Give your employees the tools, space, privacy, respect, and trust they need to achieve greatness. Don’t create needless bureaucratic policies—like having to get a manager’s approval to leave work for a dentist appointment—that make them feel like they work for Big Brother. 

Communicate Simply and Clearly 

Use positive, direct, and clear language when dealing with your employees. Don’t use industry jargon or corporate-speak in the interest of sounding “professional.” And beware of absolutist language like “I need this by the end of the day,” “we can’t spend more time on this,” or “you should be able to do this easily.” These kinds of directives create unnecessary tension and stress. 

When you “need” something done immediately, try phrasing it as a question: “Do you think you could finish this by the end of the day?” 

Along the same lines, limit your use of “ASAP.” Most things don’t need to happen as soon as possible. Every request is not equally urgent, so save ASAP for when it really matters. 

2. Give Support

In Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Paul Marciano says employees enjoy autonomy, with the freedom to take risks and seek novel solutions, which is why it’s important to give them support and make them feel important. Autonomous employees are helpful because they’re more flexible in responding to novel situations and require less management overhead. They provide the change they want to see in the organization, which increases a feeling of ownership in the company’s success.

Autonomy requires trust from above, information sharing, sufficient resources, training, and decision-making responsibility. 

Autonomous employees require information sharing to understand the goals of the organization. Only then can they independently make decisions that don’t detract from the team.

Employees feel empowered when they have the resources to get their job done. They can only feel empowered when roadblocks and cumbersome processes are eliminated, or when they have the authority to change them. 

Training is one of the highest-leverage activities to invest in. In onboarding, training helps develop existing skills in the context of the new organization. Ongoing training promotes an expectation of a growth mindset, trust in their ability for growth, and increases engagement with assignments at their limit of challenge. Functionally, growth leads to additional value from the employee and creates an internal pipeline of candidates for promotion.

Overall, employees who feel well-resourced and trusted believe the organization wants them to succeed. 

Actionables for Empowerment

  • Regularly ask employees how you can help them be more successful. Resources? Training? Information? 
  • Delegate as much decision-making responsibility as possible to employees.
  • Improve training during onboarding. Ask current employees for feedback on how to improve training.
  • Carve out employee time for continued training, and give them resources to achieve it. Allow them to choose the area of their training (within boundaries).
  • Encourage employees to take educated risks.
  • Ask employees for suggestions on changing restrictive policies and processes, so they don’t feel bottlenecked or held back.
  • Ask a leader from another department to share info with your team. Allow team members to cross-train in another job, so they can expand their skills.
  • Turn employees into coaches. Hold workshops with team members who can teach each other things. 
  • Give a range of new opportunities to employees, and allow them to choose. 

Give Supportive Feedback

Managers should provide feedback with the mindset of a coach: I want you to be successful. This viewpoint makes employees feel cared for and lowers defensiveness (compared to the situation if the manager were just berating the employee).

80% of feedback should be positive and reinforce behavior, while 20% should be about improving performance (constructive feedback)

Give feedback often. Lack of support signals to the employee that she doesn’t matter much and there’s no hope for her. This can set off a vicious cycle of disengagement and confirmation bias by the manager (“I knew Tim was no good—look at how disengaged he is. I’m not going to waste time on him.”). 

Good constructive feedback comes quickly after a problem begins. This wastes fewer resources from suffering the problem and makes it less awkward to point out (as opposed to giving feedback on a problem 6 months earlier).

If you give feedback often enough, performance reviews should not contain any surprises. Some managers give so little feedback, positive or constructive, that employees are left in the dark about how they’re doing. Then in end-of-year reviews, the manager shows up with a problem from 8 months ago. How does this feel fair to the employee?

Do not pile up all the bad news to unleash all at once. Would a coach wait until the season’s over to tell his team how much they could improve? 

Actionables for Supportive Feedback
  • Weight your feedback to 80% positive, and 20% constructive.
  • Make the feedback specific. Help make clear what the actionable is, so it’s not just perceived as your complaining.
  • Give positive feedback in the area the employee has the most interest or pride. If you don’t know what this is, ask what it is.
  • Encourage reciprocal feedback from team members.
  • Provide coaching within 24 hours of becoming aware of the problem. Don’t wait. Make it “at the moment.”
  • Follow up with employees after giving feedback to reinforce the positive change and hold them accountable for improvement.
  • Message feedback with powerless communication, or not aggressively or assertively. Instead of saying “you should have done this,” ask, “can I give you a suggestion?” Even better, ask them to reflect on a suboptimal outcome, and how they could have done better in that situation.
  • Hold a workshop for employees to learn how to give feedback to one another.
  • Always make feedback about the behavior, not about the person. No “you have a bad attitude.”
  • When delivering notably critical feedback, take extra care to message it in a supportive manner.
  • When you’re given feedback yourself, don’t get defensive. Listen attentively and ask for advice on how to do better.

3. Address Your Employees’ Emotions

If you want to lead with empathy, you’ll need to take the time to address your employees’ emotions. Humans have emotions; there’s no way around them. People have emotional reactions, even at work—maybe even especially at work since we pour a fair amount of our lives into it. Ignoring feelings or casting them out of the workplace is not only inadvisable, but it’s also nearly impossible, says the authors of Difficult Conversations.

As a recipient of emotions, the main fear about allowing emotions into the workplace is that the only way to deal with someone’s feelings is to give them what they want. But addressing emotions in the workplace can 1) prevent them from overwhelming people at work and 2) favor acknowledgment over “fixing” the feeling.

  • Example: Your employee is mad about not getting a promotion, and if she brings it up, the only option you have is to give her a promotion to quiet her down. False. If you hear her out about her anger, it can lead to a conversation about what she’s expecting and why versus how she’s performing and other influential factors. Instead of fixing her anger, this option acknowledges it and uses it for learning and understanding.

The goal of a difficult conversation is to shift our mentality from assuming we already understand someone to wanting to understand them better. 

The key is to be genuinely curious. No matter how good you might be at doing the things listed on a good listening checklist, people can usually tell whether it’s authentic or not. 

How to Listen to Your Employees

Leading with empathy requires listening to the concerns and opinions of your employees, according to Jack Canfield’s book The Success Principles. People feel valued when leaders listen. In contrast, if employees feel they aren’t being heard or their concerns are being ignored, it builds resentment that doesn’t support a healthy work environment.

Good listening requires three skills that can be learned by anyone. These skills are interconnected skills centered on whether you’re really listening or whether you’re trying to prove a point. Let’s take a look at the skills Difficult Conversations says are essential for being an active listener and empathetic leader.

Skill #1: Ask Questions with the Goal of Learning

If you’re not sure about your goal, ask yourself why you want to ask the question. If your answer is anything other than “to learn about the other person,” it’s probably not a good question to ask.

Don’t ask questions that are really statements. Often, we want to express a statement in a difficult conversation, and we mistakenly think it’s more polite to ask it as a question instead. This usually comes off as snide or passive-aggressive. Instead of hearing your feelings or opinions, the other person will most likely focus on the attack and get defensive.

Don’t ask questions to prove the other person wrong. Questions you ask intending to prove someone wrong aren’t focused on learning, they’re focused on persuading or humiliating someone else. They usually serve as traps for the other person — and trapping them into an answer isn’t aligned with the goal of learning. Again, the outcome will be defensiveness.

Ask open-ended questions. You’ll get more information with these than with yes or no questions, or multiple-choice questions. Again, the goal should be to learn about the other person — you can only do that by getting them to talk. Use phrases like “tell me more about…” or “help me better understand…” to get the other person talking.

Ask for more specific information, especially on anything you’re confused about. Questions like, “What leads you to say that?” or “Can you give me an example?” or “How would that work?” can be helpful.

Ask them about the 3 Conversations: What Happened, Feelings, and Identity conversations.

  • What Happened: “Can you tell me more about why you see it that way?” and “What impact have my actions had on you?”
  • Feelings: “How are you feeling about this?”
  • Identity: “Can you tell me why that’s important to you?”

Give them the option to not answer. Questions should be invitations, not demands. The other person should be able to refuse to answer your questions without any punishment. It builds trust if someone declines to answer a question and you show that it’s okay. People often feel freer to answer questions if they feel they have the option not to.

Skill #2: Paraphrase Their Responses

Paraphrasing someone’s response means expressing, in your own words, your understanding of what they’re saying.

Paraphrasing helps you double-check whether your understanding is correct, and gives the other person an opportunity to clarify if you’re misunderstanding something. This also confirms for the other person that you’ve heard them, and are trying to understand them. 

We usually repeat ourselves because we’re not sure if someone’s understood us — once we know they have, we can focus on listening to them in return. If you notice the other person repeating themselves, it probably means they don’t feel understood yet.

Skill #3: Acknowledge Their Feelings

Feelings desperately want to be acknowledged, and acknowledging someone else’s feelings requires empathy. Empathy is “a journey with a direction but no destination.” Empathy requires us to move beyond observing someone from the outside, and imagine what it would be like to be them on the inside. 

It won’t be perfect—we’re all too complex to ever be totally understood by someone who isn’t us. But psychologists discovered that it’s more important to feel like someone is trying to empathize with us than believing they’ve done it successfully.

Acknowledgment is about showing the other person that you’re working to understand their feelings. Usually, this step requires us to paraphrase the things the other person isn’t saying.

Another way to think of this is: feelings usually come with several unasked questions. Even an expression of anger that seems focused on an event probably has a silent question at its heart. Three examples of unasked questions are:

  1. Is it okay that I’m feeling this?
  2. Do you care about my feelings?
  3. Do you care about me?

Acknowledging people’s feelings gives a resounding yes to each of those questions. This helps them feel safer and ready to move forward in the conversation.

  • For example: If your friend is unhappy with a mistake you’ve made, “It won’t happen again” might respond to the situation, but not to your friend’s feelings. “It sounds like this was really important to you,” is an acknowledgment of their feelings about the situation.

Verbal responses aren’t always necessary—a nod or a look might be enough. But it’s incredibly important to acknowledge feelings before you try to solve the problem. Order matters. Most of us skip straight to offering solutions because we think the issue is that there’s a problem that needs to be fixed. Usually, people want their feelings heard first and foremost. 

Remember: acknowledgment is not agreement. You might not agree with what the other person is feeling, but you should be able to acknowledge that their feelings are still important.  You’ll never get through a difficult conversation if you don’t believe the other person’s feelings are important—it will most likely turn into an argument.

4. Always Work on Improving Yourself

The Success Principles also says leaders need to be open to learning to be empathetic. Feedback from employees is an opportunity to learn and create new practices together that will benefit the company as a whole. For example, if an employee expresses interest in a matching 401(k) contribution from the company, explore why the employee is interested in it. Then, if you determine it makes sense, create a plan to see it through. If you don’t think it makes sense, explain your reasoning in a way that acknowledges the employee’s perspective.

While a lot of opportunities will open up to you as a leader, leadership is more about giving than taking. In The 5 Levels of Leadership, John C. Maxwell offers these best behaviors to guide you:

1. Allow others to lead. As an empathetic leader, you want to develop leaders, not just gain followers, and that means that you should genuinely want other people to succeed, help them work on their strengths, empower them to lead, see their potential and help them get there, and set aside enough time to mentor them.

You might think there’s only so much room at the top so developing leaders would be pointless. But when you develop leaders and find places where they can contribute, you start a cycle that fuels an organization’s growth, which in turn leads to a need for more good leaders. Find ways to create opportunities for expansion or initiatives that would require additional leaders to give them the chance to advance.

As previously mentioned, this also means that empathetic leaders treat succession planning seriously. Maxwell believes that many leaders stay at an organization longer than they should, but that as a leader, you should treat succession like a relay race: Pass off the baton while both you and the next person are running at full speed. 

2. Help others move up. Maxwell writes that you can develop other employees fit for leadership by tapping resources that can help them grow, such as speakers who can conduct workshops or organizations that can inspire them. You can also help them by using “crucible moments,” which are personal experiences that taught you important lessons and molded you into the leader that you are. Or they can be situations you create for emerging leaders to help them reach their potential. 

Answer the following questions to help you determine the best crucible moments for your emerging leaders:

  • What leadership lessons do you want them to learn? Come up with a list of characteristics that any good leader should have, then create situations where your leaders-in-training can gain experience in those areas. Use challenges your organization currently faces and as opportunities for leaders to earn another badge.
  • What are the crucible moments in their lives? In an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Robert J. Thomas cites three kinds of crucibles: reversal (death, divorce), suspension (unemployment, suspension), and new territory (new roles, overseas assignments). Help leaders discern what these experiences taught them. 
  • What are your own crucible moments? Go through your formative experiences—such as those that showed you a quality you needed to develop, propelled you forward when you were stuck or brought you to a crossroads—and identify what they taught you.

Share these crucible moments with potential leaders to inspire them. They’re behind you on the journey, so use your years of experience to help them move forward.

3. Create an environment that breeds leaders. How can you make your organization an incubator for leadership? Maxwell encourages you to find ways to make it conducive to developing leaders, then make it an integral part of their responsibilities to develop other leaders.

4. Think of the possibilities for your organization and then make them happen. As an empathetic leader, you’re in a unique position to effect great change. These changes can be wide-ranging, depending on your specific organization and circumstance. Think about products, services, values, and other improvements you can introduce.

5. Have an inner circle to keep you in check. Surround yourself with a trusted group of fellow leaders and let openness, honesty, and loyalty reign. Those in your inner circle should not only help you raise the bar at the organization but also help keep you humble by telling you the truths you need to hear. Have a give-and-take relationship with them, fostering an atmosphere of trust and honesty. Work with them, help each other, and keep each other grounded.

6. Make a positive impact that lasts. What do you want your legacy to be? Given the extent of your influence, think about how you can use it to benefit others beyond your organization. Once you’ve determined what you want your legacy to be, align your actions. If what you do every day doesn’t contribute to the legacy you want to leave, then it’s time for a change.

Final Words

Leading with empathy doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a long process because it requires attention to both yourself and your employees. Overall, empathy is the foundation of a healthy relationship with your employees and building a positive work culture that creates success.

Do you have any advice on leading with empathy? If so, leave your tips in the comments below!

What Leading With Empathy Looks Like in Business

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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