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How leaders can cultivate empathy

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Although everyone in the world can benefit from increasing their empathy (especially these days), the truth is this quality is particularly important for business managers and company leaders. Leadership without empathy is simply dictatorship.

Many people assume that empathy is an innate trait. Although many people are very gifted and natural empaths, it doesn’t mean that this quality must be present from birth. Empathy can be learned, and the more you practice it, the more adept you become at understanding other people’s complex feelings and emotions.

Although everyone in the world can benefit from increasing their empathy (especially these days), the truth is this quality is particularly important for business managers and company leaders. Leadership without empathy is simply dictatorship.

Empathy is one of the most overlooked leadership qualities, and learning how to be more empathic is key to becoming a more effective manager. After a big discussion on leadership in our latest podcast, we decided to focus in on empathy, a topic that came up frequently.


Empathy is typically defined as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions.” It’s an integral part of our core identity as human beings, and has been a key driver of human evolutionary history.

Even early humans realized that we were more successful as a unit when we were all happy and well-fed. So many inventions over the course of human history were designed to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings. Just think about the people who were behind the creation of insulin, the yellow traffic light, and so much more. These inventions were created specifically to alleviate human suffering.

Given the human race’s historical attachment to empathy, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that empathy has been positively correlated to job performance, and in some cultures it’s considered even more important than job performance. Ineffective leaders aren’t just harming their employees- they’re also hurting their company’s bottom line in the form of reduced productivity, higher turnover, and other related costs.

If companies want to save money, increase employee happiness, and boost client satisfaction, they need to start hiring empathetic managers.


Now that we all understand just how important empathy is, the next step is figuring out what empathy looks like in the workplace.

Because empathy is so complex, it can look and feel different depending on who you are, and how you express yourself. Many people have avoided learning about or indulging their feelings of empathy in the workplace because they see it as a weakness.

Fortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Empathy doesn’t involve making yourself weaker or subservient to other people- it simply means that you are capable of recognizing and learning from the feelings and experiences of others.

Every manager will have to make hard choices at some point in their career. They’ll need to fire someone, or promote one person over another who has worked equally hard but just doesn’t have the necessary qualifications. Empathy isn’t skirting these hard conversations- it simply means making these conversations easier by recognizing the emotions involved, reading the situation, and responding appropriately.


In order to have a successful career, we need to be concerned about ourselves and our own well-being. Being empathetic doesn’t mean letting go of that.

In fact, a recent study from Google showed that the most successful managers were not the ones that had the most technical knowledge. The most successful managers at Google were the most empathetic. They listened to their team, empowered them without micromanaging, and took interest in their individual successes as well as their personal wellbeing.


If you’re a manager and you don’t know whether you’re being as empathetic as you can be- just ask! There’s no harm in soliciting honest and constructive feedback from your managers, or someone who you trust at work.

Here are some constructive tips for ways that you can cultivate empathy, and support your staff. With the world upside-down and the majority of North Americans working from home, this has never been more important.


Listening is an extremely important skill to cultivate. When we say listen, it doesn’t mean that you simply stop talking while the other person has their turn. To truly practice active, empathetic listening, you should be giving the other person your full attention, and devoting all of your effort to understand what they’re saying. A great way to practice this is to get in the habit of reflecting, summarizing, and clarifying what people say to you. This involves using sentences like “so what I think you’re saying is…” or “can you explain what you mean when you say…”

This tip is especially useful now, given that voice and video calls are the only way that we can connect with our team.


The temptation to multi-task is so strong, even when we’re all working from home. It’s really easy to go on mute from a check-in phone call and work on clearing out your inbox or making your morning cup of coffee while other people are talking.

Instead of focusing on getting as much done as humanly possible, try and shift your focus entirely on to your conversation partner. Being present in this moment will bring the situation more clarity, and can be felt by everyone involved. Even over the phone, we can always tell when someone is totally disinterested in what we’re saying.


As much as possible, get in the habit of observing body language in interactions with your staff. Notice whether they’re clenching their jaw and tensing their shoulders, or offering a more relaxed posture. This is a great indication of their mood and feelings that they’re unable to express.

Observing body language is difficult, but not impossible when your staff is remote. Instead of conducting calls entirely over audio, switch it up with the occasional video call. It will give you a much better sense of how your staff are doing.


One of the best tips that came up in the podcast was that managers should be making an effort to ask open-ended questions. The majority of people who are in conversations with an authority figure will do their best to offer answers and opinions that match what they think the manager is looking for.

To try and discourage people from simply telling you what they think you want to hear, start asking open-ended questions. Instead of saying “are you doing ok?”, you could ask them to tell you how their day or week has been going. Then just sit and listen.

You’d be surprised how much more you get out of these open-ended questions than questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no.


Right now, it’s no exaggeration to say that the majority of us are struggling. Not only are we all simply existing in the middle of a pandemic, many people have their own health concerns, or are dealing with difficult personal or financial circumstances.

Multiple studies we’ve cited today have shown that the best managers and leaders are those that care about their staff. If you aren’t in the habit of asking your staff how they’re doing personally, now is a great time to start. Don’t forget to make it an open-ended question, too. “Tell me about how you and your family are doing” is a lot better than “So, is your day going well?”


At the end of the day, people just want to feel acknowledged and appreciated. The most successful workplaces are headed up by people who genuinely care about their staff.

If you do care about your staff but don’t know how to show it, here are some ideas:

  • Add a time in your regular check-in meetings to acknowledge people who worked hard or solved problems that week.
  • Drop off gifts for staff in quarantine- from a safe distance, of course!
  • Ask about family members.
  • Verbally acknowledge hard work with a phone call or in-person meeting- not just an email.

We’re all going through a tough time together. Learning how to be more empathetic now will set you up for success, and make you even more effective when we’re all working together again.