Leading with empathy

The hard business case for a misunderstood ‘soft skill’

Even the most results-focused manager would find it hard to argue against the need for at least some level of empathy, ie the ability to identify and understand another person’s emotions and perspective. But should empathy be seen as a nice to have (although not exactly essential) leadership attribute, or are we talking about a critical business skill worthy of active development?

Here’s an unbundling of the empathy concept, its real-life impact on performance, and why it makes good business sense for leaders to care about it.

Empathy unpacked: what we really mean…

A psychologist’s standard definition of empathy refers to the “ability to recognise, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person”. Other definitions refer to understanding another person “from their frame of reference” or “vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions and thoughts”.

Employees tend to regard empathy along similar lines to public holidays: they like the idea and would like to see more. As an illustration, an unsurprisingly high 89% of respondents to EY’s 2021 Empathy in Business Survey said they feel that “empathy leads to better leadership”, with similar numbers of employees saying it “enables trust” and “increases productivity”.

So far, so good. But one unfortunate feature of this type of employee perception survey is their tendency to leave business leaders thinking, “So what?”. Take a friendly-sounding concept like empathy and ask some pretty loaded questions about it, and you can expect lots of positive responses. Get it right, and you can make the concept in question sound like a cure-all for all manner of business problems.

So, it’s important to keep some perspective. Is empathy the ‘secret sauce’ for successful leadership? Probably not. Is the ability to understand other people’s perspectives a valuable asset for a leader? Almost certainly, yes. And as for achieving concrete business outcomes (eg higher productivity, more contracts won and lower staff attrition), an understanding of what empathy actually involves can illustrate the difference it can make on the ground.

In terms of professional/business relationships, empathy can be categorised as follows:

Cognitive empathy

This refers to the ability to notice, appreciate and perhaps understand another person’s thoughts or feelings. At the very least, acknowledge that there might be another way of looking at things. This ability to grasp where the other person is coming from – whether it’s an employee, investor, or an opposite number in negotiations – is a valuable form of intel for any leader. For instance, let’s say you have ambitions for a radical business model overhaul. If you can read the room – ie really appreciate what employees think and feel about the proposed change, such insight can shape the way in which those changes are communicated and rolled out. Cognitive empathy becomes a driving force for achieving buy-in.

Affective empathy

Affective or emotional empathy refers to the ability to “share the feelings of another person”. It goes beyond merely understanding a person’s perspective to actively tapping into it on some level. Affective empathy allows you to put yourself in the shoes of other people and analyse their likely responses to change. As such, it can be particularly useful for strategising tricky scenarios. Let’s say you need to ramp up targets for your sales team. Affective empathy lets you tap into the emotions of the team members and think proactively about what practical steps might be effective at alleviating those concerns. Working with these emotive cues allows us to influence in a way which mere logic will simply not achieve. (Influencing skills are a topic for another day!)

So far as organisational impact is concerned, empathy is not just about “understanding how people are feeling” for its own sake. It delivers both cognitive and emotional insight, enabling leaders to make decisions and enact changes in a way that accounts for the likely impact of those changes.

Does empathy have an image problem?

“Look at Steve Jobs”. For anyone who is sceptical about the need for touchy-feely soft skills, the legendary Apple boss is a natural reference point. A clear and inspiring vision, an absolute commitment to perfection and an unwillingness to suffer fools: if these are the hallmarks of your leadership style – and if it delivers results – then who needs empathy?

A couple of points on this. Firstly, if you look beneath the surface of a business headed up by a no-nonsense, zero-empathy leader, you often find that everything is not quite as it seems. If there’s a Steve Jobs issuing harsh deadlines, there are also often conciliatory Tim Cook type figures at work, too. These managers have the emotional intelligence to gauge employees and come up with strategies to ensure those deadlines are met. If there’s a dearth of empathy at the very top of a company, it just means that there is an even greater need for it further down the management chain.

Secondly, it is not a binary choice between strong, inspirational leadership and empathy. You can have bold visions for the future and be willing to make tough decisions (sometimes, without consensus). Empathetic capabilities do not diminish this, in fact, if you can put them to work, they will increase the likelihood of your vision being successfully realised.

Empathy is not a synonym for weakness, being a push-over, or for compromising on excellence. It actually strengthens your leadership toolkit. It gives you an appreciation of the other person; their preferences, choices, concerns, the way they learn and how they prefer to work. With this knowledge, you are more likely to achieve the excellence you are aiming for.

Can empathy be learned?

For some leaders, empathy comes naturally. For others, less so. The risk of becoming ‘empathy jaded’ is something that medics always have to be alive to – and the same also applies to the corporate world. When you are heading up a close-knit team, it’s easier to stay in touch with others’ perspectives. As the company expands or the specifics of your role change, you can become distanced from the organisational front line and lose touch with other people’s thoughts and emotions.

Empathy bias is another pitfall to be mindful of – our brains are wired to be more easily empathetic to people we understand to be part of our own social group. As a leader it is important to be cautious that your empathy for one person or group isn’t leading you to making decisions that have a negative impact on others you are less inclined to empathise with, or the wider organisation generally. If you are subconsciously selective about who and what receives your empathy, it can be just as bad as having no empathy at all.

Empathy is absolutely something that can and should be learned, refreshed, and honed. As a starting point, you might want to check out these two talks:

Roman Krznaric – The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People – YouTube

Brené Brown on Empathy – YouTube


You could try these six steps to sharpen your empathetic capabilities:

  1. Practise active listening: eg being fully present in conversations, asking open questions and occasionally paraphrasing and repeating back what has been said. The idea is to get a better sense of the intent and ‘real meaning’ behind what people are saying (absolutely key to cognitive empathy).
  2. Share in other people’s joy – enrich your empathy skills by capitalising on others’ successes.
  3. Look for commonalities with others – we may have differences in outlook, but there is often more common ground between us than may initially meet the eye.
  4. Read fiction and watch more films – get better at experiencing what other people (even fictional characters!) are going through.
  5. Pay attention to facial cues (test your skills here).
  6. Check out some of the best research-based empathy practices, and learn more here.

Real life inspiration

Read how developing empathy for a team of underwriters improved the landscape for Solution Cell client, Beazley – go to Client Focus Article


If this article has got you thinking, and you would like to talk to us about how we could help with any of the topics raised, please get in touch


Contributors: Ian Beer, Petra Gale, Laura HandsÅsa Walker