HomeTalentLeadership DevelopmentWhy empathic leadership attributes matter in today’s conditions

Why empathic leadership attributes matter in today's conditions

  • 6 Min Read

HRD Thought Leader Dave Ulrich outlines the leadership attributes that matter during a period of intense pressure across the world

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Everyone hopes and anticipates that the horrific Coronavirus disease will abate in 2021 thanks to vaccines and smart lifestyle choices. While many scars from the pandemic will remain, our society has also experienced a pervasive emotional deficit due to social injustices (from refugee challenges to racism and sexism) and our political divide.

This emotional deficit disorder makes many of us less patient with others (even those we love), less equipped to deal with enduring uncertainty, and prone to fatigue, anxiety, and mood swings.

It shows up at work and provokes more bickering than collaboration; more contempt than civility and comity; more social and emotional isolation than engagement in divergent thinking; and more demand for mental health services.

The sharp decline in empathy may provide a key explanation to what we’re experiencing. Between 1980 and 2010, the University of Michigan conducted a study using 14,000 college students as subjects. They measured the students’ level of empathy and their capacity to see things from the perspective of other people.

Over the years of the study, students’ empathetic concern dropped by 48 percent and their ability to share others’ perspective fell by 34 percent. The researchers concluded that a millennial mixture of video games, social media, reality TV, and hyper-competition have left young people self-involved, shallow, and unfettered in their individualism and ambition.

In the ten years since this study ended, nothing indicates that this trend has softened. If anything, the steady growth of social media bubbles and political squabbles may have caused it to increase.

How can we address this emotional malaise? The work setting provides an effective environment to foster empathy without getting mired in political or religious affiliations.

Here are a few coaching tips to build empathic leadership attributes:

Feel empathy

Honestly, do you know how your staff feels? Living in your employees’ shoes alters your perspective, provides valuable insight, and strengthens the culture of the workplace. That’s why it’s critical to invite those who are not like you to join your team (see Team of Rivals).

Select people who complement your skills, then give them a voice to move forward. If you disagree, do so without being disagreeable or contemptuous. Feeling empathy for your team inspires respect among co-workers and re-frames future initiatives, issues, and improvements by allowing us to see things from multiple points of view.

Show empathy

It’s the emotional fabric gluing people together, creating a sense of belonging, and strengthening cultures. Empathy comes from having common sense and caring for employees as people, a topic discussed in Lindstroms’ book The Ministry of Common Sense. Each individual likely has a unique and personal story to tell about both the pandemic and response to the political and social crises of the day.

As a leader, spend time not just talking or listening to employees, but really hearing them. When your employees feel understood, they are more likely to work to serve others (like customers) in turn. Professionals with empathic leadership attributes are not only authentic, visionary, and engaging, they are also able to show compassion for others, allow disagreements to foster innovation, and create common sense-based organisations without self-inflicted bureaucracy where employees want to give their best.

Express appreciation

Gratitude is one of the great predictors of personal wellbeing and of establishing positive relationships. When you focus on what is right and express gratitude for positive progress, you help your employees feel better about themselves.

Words of appreciation through personal notes, public recognition, or quiet conversations replace the emotional deficit with goodwill.  The gratitude needs to be real, not fake, and sincere, not staged, but thanking and appreciating others builds a trusting community.

Exhibit positive accountability

Sometimes your employees do not meet goals and/or behave poorly. Accountability can be a positive experience when expectations and metrics are co-created, relevant, and clear; when you have respectful conversations with employees about their performance and potential; and when an alternative solution paves the way for a successful outcome.

A test of your empathic leadership attributes is when employees leave a discussion with you feeling better about themselves. Accountability is also powerful as a means of introducing new behaviours. By showcasing what to do (and what not to do) in a positive way, colleagues can be inspired to work toward personal behavioural changes.

Be transparent and humble

You ultimately lead most by example. Share your hopes and fears, your successes and failures, and the processes you use to make key decisions. When your employees experience your values in action, they will feel the sincerity of your commitment.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep, but live up to commitments you do make. Be Teflon in success by sharing credit; Velcro in failure by taking responsibility. Take responsibility for decisions, but include others to create a shared agenda. Have conversations in the employee space, don’t make them come to you.

Make others better

Good leaders use their power to empower others and their strengths to strengthen others. Ask yourself: what can I invite others to do that uses and enhances their skills?  Give others’ opportunities to demonstrate their competence by giving them challenging assignments.

When you express empathic leadership attributes, wellbeing will spread from your employees to your customers and investors. Seeing the world through your customers’ eyes is what distinguishes successful organisations, for the simple reason that sharing the customers’ perspective builds the organisation around true needs, rather than around self-inflicted bureaucracy, rules, and red tape.

Caring for your employees creates a virtual cycle that continually delivers market and marketplace value.

Let the work setting be a starting point for replacing contempt and enmity with tolerance and goodwill, and watch it spread.


Martin Lindstrom is the author of “The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses, and Corporate BS.”

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. is the President & CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the world’s largest HR professional association.

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