How to Become A More Empathetic Leader

Career Advice & Advancement Industry Advice Business Leadership

As a business leader or manager, there’s a good chance that you spend a lot of time improving and developing the skills and qualities that you believe will make you more effective at your job—skills and qualities like creativity, vision, decisiveness, and expertise. While these are important qualities for leaders to exhibit, one of the most important turns out to be a basic ingredient in what makes us human: Empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It’s an important skill that most of us use in our daily lives as we navigate our relationship to the world and people around us, and is a critical piece of emotional intelligence.

As many research studies tell us, it’s a very important skill for leaders to practice and hone. A study by research firm DDI found that empathy is one of the most important drivers of overall performance amongst managers, and another study by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCI) found that managers who show higher levels of empathy toward their team are viewed as better performers by their bosses.

Managers who show higher levels of empathy toward their team are viewed as better performers by their bosses. Share on X

Unfortunately, however important it is for managers to interact with their team empathetically, the DDI study found that only 40% of business leaders exhibit proficient or strong empathy skills.

Talk about a skills gap.

The Importance of Empathy in Business

Why is empathy so important in business? There are a lot of theories, but they all boil down to one simple fact: Regardless of job title, all of us—managers and team members alike—are human beings, and human beings are emotional creatures.

Your ability, as a manager, to understand the emotions that your team members are feeling allows you not only to become a more effective communicator and problem solver, but also to build the rapport, trust, and relationships that fuel team success.

What’s more, empathy doesn’t just help you manage your team. It also helps you to ask your customers the questions that you need to better understand their goals, aspirations, fears, and objectives, which you can use to inform your overall business strategy and become more profitable.

Simply put, it’s hard to overestimate just how important empathy is in creating—and leading—a successful business.

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How to Become a More Empathetic Business Leader or Manager

If you want to improve your emotional intelligence and become a more empathetic manager, you’re in luck: Empathy is most certainly a skill that you can practice and improve upon.

“The ability to understand and relate to the challenges your team encounters has never been more critical, as leaders navigate unchartered waters like global economics, diverse workforces, and virtualized team’s,” says Mary Ludden, assistant teaching professor of Project Management at Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies. “You must zealously commit as a leader to practice empathy as a rule. Understanding how external and internal forces impact your team’s ability to succeed will no doubt become a defining characteristic of your leadership style.”

Here are seven things you can begin doing immediately to become a more empathetic leader.

1. Become a better listener.

One of the easiest ways for you to improve your empathy skills is to become a better listener. After all, every conversation you have, whether with a subordinate or a superior, is an opportunity to forge relationships, build rapport, and encourage the free flow of ideas which can grow an innovative business.

Many people don’t know how to truly listen. The good news? Following the lessons we learned in grade school—pay attention, don’t interrupt, don’t be distracted—is all that we need to do to become better listeners.

Of course, listening doesn’t just mean paying attention to the words that your team members are saying. It means understanding the emotions behind those words, as well as the nonverbal cues, including body language, tone of voice, and mannerisms, that speak to your team members’ state of mind. If communication is 80 percent nonverbal, as is popularly claimed, then focusing only on the words being spoken means you’re only getting 20 percent of the message.

In addition to making you a better communicator, practicing your active listening skills allows you to show your team that you value what they have to say, you value their opinions, and you value them.

2. Form a personal bond with your team.

Empathy is all about being able to read and understand the emotions being felt by others. One way that managers can become better at being empathetic with their team is by putting in the work to form a personal bond with each team member.

Forming a more personal bond works in your favor in a couple of ways. First, it gives you insight into the different ways that the members of your team communicate emotion. After all, no two people express emotion in exactly the same way, so taking the time to understand how each person you work with communicates this information is critical.

But beyond this, forming a personal bond with your team members or employees will help them to understand that you care about them as individuals and not just about what they can do for the bottom line. Forming these bonds aligns you as an ally with your team members, facilitating a culture of more open communication that can help lead to truly innovative discussions and solutions to problems.

How can you forge these important, personal bonds with your team? Simply being a better listener (see above) is a great place to start. Talk to your team. Ask them questions about their lives, and remember the details—the names of spouses, children, pets; their hobbies; and their personal history. Putting in this small bit of effort will lay the foundation upon which truly powerful bonds can be built.

3. See things from their point of view.

Sometimes it can be really difficult to get a clear read on the emotional state of your team.

Maybe you have transitioned to a new team and have not yet had the opportunity to form the necessary personal bonds. Maybe you have moved to a new organization where team members have learned to hide or filter their true emotions from their supervisors. Maybe the company has just gone through a bad quarter or a round of layoffs, and the workers don’t know if it is wise to be so emotionally open.

Whatever the case, in situations like these, there are still steps that you can take to gain some valuable emotional insight into the mindset of your team.

One way that you can gain this insight is to put yourself in the shoes of your team members. Ask yourself: How would you feel in a similar situation? What would you do? What would you want or expect from your manager? What would you not want? Use these insights to inform your management techniques, build rapport, and foster the level of communication that you need in order to be effective at your job.

4. Seek formal leadership training.

Incorporating empathy and emotional intelligence into your management style is a skill that can be learned just like any other.

While some will do fine following the advice above and experimenting on their own to find a balance that works for them, their team, and their organization, others may find it easier to build their skills by seeking expert advice in the form of a workshop, class, or even an advanced degree. Ultimately, the best course of action will be the one that works for your unique learning style and career goals.

The Power of Empathy

“In the not too distant past, discussing empathy as a required characteristic of a leader would have been a rarity,” says Ludden. “The truth of the matter is that all of us are seeking deeper connections not only in our personal lives, but from our professional colleagues as well.  Our ability to connect with each other on all levels of our consciousness will differentiate great leaders from being good managers.”

The ability to empathize with your team is one of the most powerful skills that any leader can exhibit. Flexing your emotional intelligence muscles will help you foster a culture of open communication, enable you to understand the motivations and worries of your team, and breed trusting relationships that will help your organization reach its strategic business goals.

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