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How to be an empathetic leader?

By Manasi Bharati, Psychology Consultant

When was the last time you stopped and asked yourself, “How would I feel if I were in the place of my team member?”

Empathy is defined as, “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.” It has the following three components:

  1. Understanding others’ feelings

  2. Active sharing

  3. Passive experiencing

Empathy can change the way you think. Scientific research says that emotional connection leads to cognitive flexibility and results in more creativity and success. Having empathy is different from demonstrating empathy.

An empathetic leader is one who leads by example and identifies the feelings, emotions and needs of their employees. But let’s first find out why it is important to be one. 

The “why”:

Empathy and leadership: Empathy is one of the strongest predictors of leadership success and is highly related to ethical behaviour. Management Research Group’s study of 2013 showed, and an American study of 2018 supported the finding, that empathy is the strongest predictor of ethical leadership behaviour out of 22 other competencies predicting leadership success (Financial Post, 2013; Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 2018).

Empathy and performance: Empathetic leaders can inspire and create high-performing and more satisfied followers. A study across 38 countries and 6,731 managers by the Centre for Creative Leadership in 2016 found empathic emotion to be positively related to job performance i.e. higher the empathy, better the performance of individuals (Empathy in the Workplace, CCL, 2016). An INSEAD study showed that when an empathic perspective is taken, the negotiation skills are enhanced too (Psychological Science, Kalinsky, 2008).

Empathy and creativity: Empathy can boost innovation and creativity in individuals. New products turn out to be more successful if empathy is induced while designing the product (University of Connecticut, 2019). When compared with groups of designers told to create new things and groups of designers told to think of the end-user while creating new things, more creative and innovative products were discovered.

The “how”:

Humans are biologically built to feel with others and feel for others. We have something called ‘mirror neurons’ which allow us to feel what the other person is feeling. When you see somebody feeling happy, sad or angry, your brain is wired to activate those similar areas in your brain too and to make you feel happy, sad or angry. As leaders, you can use this to your benefit and boost motivation by connecting with your team. Empathy can be learnt, built and developed by leaders through coaching and training, but more importantly, by application. Pause here right now and think of the last time that you truly listened to one of your employees and remember their story and their feeling even now?

Understanding others’ feelingsActively listening and listening to more than just words is something that you can do to understand your employees’ emotions. Pay close attention to the way they speak, the words they use, their facial expressions, hand gestures and body movements. Try to understand your team beyond their words. Be fully present by paying close attention to the individual, trying to minimise your own thoughts and reserving any judgment. You can do this by saying things like,

‘I am listening to you with all my attention’, ‘You can freely express yourself and your emotions’, ‘I am not here to judge you, your thoughts or your experiences, I am simply trying to understand your situation’.

Active sharing: Give time and attention to your employees and team members. Showing that you care and remember things important to them, can go a long way in motivating them to work harder. You can do this by being more active in conversations when things are being shared with you. You can summarise the conversation by paraphrasing it to make sure that you are understanding correctly and also to reassure your employee that you are truly present and communicating. You can simply respond and acknowledge their situation and their emotions by saying things like,

‘I understand’, ‘I am here for you’, ‘This is a difficult situation’, ‘I would have felt similarly’.

You may also enquire about their situation and remind them occasionally that they have your support. Talking about your own similar experiences might encourage them to experience their feelings more freely.

Passive experiencingDon’t just say supportive statements, but also experience them. Perspective taking or “being in somebody else’s shoe” is crucial for being empathetic. For you to understand what your employee is feeling, you need to feel those emotions with them. This will help you give non-judgmental remarks as well as one is less likely to criticise themselves or pass remarks. You can do this by asking yourself questions like,

‘What could I have done in their situation?’, ‘How would I have felt?’, ‘What actions of my leader would have made me feel understood and supported?’.

Before taking any decision or action as a leader, ‘feeling with people’ can help you get far and cultivate a culture of compassion and trust which will eventually boost morale and productivity in your organization. The “hows” are something that need to be consistent and done daily rather than once in a while. Empathy can make you an impactful and visionary leader, only if you act upon it.

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