Empathy Is a Top Skill for Leaders

Our Waggl Wellspring series shares trends in workplace engagement and wellbeing. Sources include academic and industry researchers, visionaries and neuroscientists. In our first Waggl Wellspring, we demonstrated the influence of servant leaders. Now, we focus on a top skill of servant leaders: empathy.

When leaders build empathy as a skill, they bring more meaning and momentum to their relationships, and to their entire organization.

Firstly, What Is Empathy?

  • Empathy is the capacity to put ourselves in another’s shoes, see the world from their perspective, and understand what they are likely thinking and feeling. In short, empathy is the key to social relationships.[1] 
  • You can’t “invent empathy” in a heartbeat. It builds over time.[2]
  • Empathy is contagious: people “catch” each other’s care and altruism.[3]

Secondly, Why Is Empathy a Skill Leaders Need?

  • If the staff don’t trust you, you are not a leader; you are just a boss. Empathy is one of the most important components for building trust with others.[4]
  • Building empathy is the first step in creating resilient virtual communities…and the foundation of creative problem-solving.[5]
  • In a recent survey of 150 CEOs, over 80% recognized empathy as key to success.[6]
  • Empathic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress, and greater morale, and their employees bounce back more quickly from difficult moments such as layoffs.[7]
  • Empathy for your customers, communities, employees, and their families goes a long way. Yes it’s a more “emotional” way to think about business leadership, but in a crisis it’s a top priority.[8]
  • Holding soft skills like empathy in the same regard as technical skills creates an environment that not only rewards existing employee skills, but also promotes continued co-learning, development, and forward progress.[9]
  • Empathy works. It’s not only human and caring; it’s practical…we are all far more productive in the context of a successful relationship than a strained one. And the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives and our leadership.[10]

And Lastly, How Do Leaders Build Empathy?

  • Leaders should start by assessing the mindsets of their employees.[11]
  • The best way to demonstrate empathy is by active listening. Ask questions that show you care and let employees know you hear them.[12]
  • Empathy is actually a choice. Arguments against empathy rely on an outdated view of emotion as a capricious beast that needs to yield to sober reason…In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.[13]
  • Empathetic leaders are more inclined to pick up subtle changes in employee behavior, which may be a sign of larger issues.[14] 
  • To build empathic cultures, leaders can begin by identifying connectors, and recruiting them for help championing the cause.[15] 
  • Empathy deserves its buzzy status, and leaders are wise to desire it for their businesses. But to succeed in making it part of their organization’s DNA, they must pay close attention to how cultures build and change — organically, collectively, and from the bottom up.[16]

And on a grander scale, if leaders can make empathy part of their organization’s DNA, then we can all do this beyond our organizations. If empathy is “contagious,” and “a choice,” then let’s all spread it “organically, collectively, and from the bottom up.” Here is one beautiful illustration of how simple this can be.


Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

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