Why empathy is important in the workplace

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Businesses have a lot to gain from employing effective leaders who can both celebrate triumphs, and offer compassion and understanding during tougher times.

Research shows that when employees felt empathy from their manager or their leadership team, 86% of participants said they were better able to navigate a work-life balance – meeting the demands of their work and personal obligations.

Knowing how to be empathetic can help leaders build trust with members of their team, create strong relationships and deliver better results to meet business goals.

In this article, we’ll define what it means to be an empathetic leader, analyse why empathy in the workplace is so important and valuable, and suggest 5 ways you can practice empathy and become a more empathetic leader in your workplace.

The meaning of empathy in the workplace

Empathy is an emotional intelligence soft skill that allows people to recognise emotions in others and share their point of view. Those who feel empathy can imagine themselves in another’s position and can interpret emotional responses better than those who might respond with indifference or hostility. It’s important to understand that not everyone experiences or offers their empathy the same. There are different types of empathy and while one person might experience just one, others may offer all of them.

Different types of empathy

The 3 main types of empathy are:

  • Cognitive empathy: the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and taking their perspective. This might also include understanding an emotional response that might appear illogical or irrational to non-empathetic people.
  • Emotional empathy: The response of feeling someone’s emotions alongside them – as if you had ‘caught them’. This gives us the ability to understand what someone is going through and offer more specific support. Emotional empathy might also include feeling pain and suffering as a result of someone else’s.
  • Compassionate empathy: Feeling concerned for someone and understanding how they feel, but with an additional move towards action to mitigate the problem. Compassionate empathy ties cognitive and emotional empathy together by allowing us to help someone whilst appropriately understanding them without jumping straight into offering advice or a solution.

An individual might also experience these additional types of empathy:

  • Affective empathy: This kind of empathy allows us to understand and decipher an emotional response and respond appropriately.
  • Somatic empathy: The physical reaction in response to someone else’s suffering. For example, if someone else was embarrassed or blushing you too might have the same physical reaction.

The value of empathy at work

Research shows that implementing empathetic leadership is an effective tool to achieve business objectives and can impact the influence leaders have over employees. Here are some specific business objectives that might benefit from an empathetic leadership team.

Better communication

Having an empathetic leadership style prepares you with the skills to adapt your communication style with the people you are interacting with. Having that awareness of how someone else is feeling means you are more likely to adjust your tone or body language to best fit the situation. This level of social intelligence is key to creating strong flows of conversation, transparency and trust.

Better relationships

Through open communication channels, a connection between colleagues and managers is enhanced. Research suggests that empathetic leaders are “assets to organisations, in part, because they can effectively build and maintain relationships—a critical part of leading organisations anywhere in the world”. It is well understood that those able to make strong connections have the most influence over the culture of an organisation, psychological safety and the effectiveness of their employees.

Better results

Through effective employees, businesses can expect better results. Survey data shows that 47% of people with highly empathic managers report often or always being innovative at work, 76% report feeling more engaged in their jobs and 54% said they experienced less burnout. Maintaining highly motivated and engaged employees who feel heard, understood and valued by their leaders is a recipe for success and to the credit of a management team leading with empathy.

5 ways to become a more empathetic leader in the workplace

Active listening

Active listening redirects your focus from internal thoughts to the needs of your colleagues or employees. By being specific about where you place your focus, it becomes clear to the person talking that they have your attention and you are ready to help solve their problem – leading with compassionate empathy. To practice active listening techniques, you might like to try asking direct questions, utilising non-verbal cues and summarising their talking points to consolidate information.

Show genuine interest in needs, goals and desires

As well as actively listening to your colleagues, taking an interest in them is effective for demonstrating empathetic leadership. Showing a genuine interest in their needs, goals and ideas sends the message that they are valued, respected and important. Learning about the people you work with is a simple yet effective measure that establishes important workplace connections.

Watch out for signs of burnout

Research found that 1 in 4 employees feel burned out at their job “very often” or “always” which demonstrates the prevalence of burnout in the workplace, usually caused by stress. Leaders can help mitigate the risks by keeping an eye out for employees who may show signs of burnout and catching onto it before it gets worse. This might include recognising fatigue, lack of motivation, working excess hours or overtime or signs of irritability and frustration.


Show compassion for problems and take action when required

Leaders can demonstrate compassionate empathy by first offering support and understanding and offering solutions or answers where appropriate. As humans, we tend to see the bigger picture when someone else is struggling and it can be tempting – particularly in workplaces – to jump straight to offering a solution. While this might solve a problem quickly, it may also give the impression you are dismissing your colleague/employee’s emotional response, which may make them feel worse.

Offer to help

After you’ve offered to actively listen and have a full understanding of your team member’s point of view, offering support or next steps can be valuable to employees as it shows a level of care. In the workplace, this might be reconsidering your team’s workload, suggesting your employees take mental health breaks if needed or harnessing your team’s strengths to show empathy and relieve feelings and experiences of work-related stress.

Want to learn more? Ready to change tactics and create an empathetic workplace? Get in touch with the Inkling team if you would like to find out more about our tailored leadership and capability development learning experiences and take the first step towards becoming a more empathetic leader.


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