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Empathetic Leadership: The Key To Understanding And Motivating Others

Defined as the ability to understand and resonate with the feelings of other people, empathetic leadership is an essential trait for those of us who want to understand, inspire, and motivate our people.

Though empathetic leadership has always been important in the workplace, COVID-19, the hybrid workforce, job satisfaction, and ongoing uncertainty both at work and home have seen the need for empathy in the workplace increase considerably in recent years.

The key to understanding and motivating others, when we display genuine empathy for our people, we have the opportunity to develop greater levels of trust. Furthermore, having empathy for our people cultivates a psychologically safe working environment where everyone thrives.

In this blog, we share why empathetic leadership is important and delve into how you can become a more empathetic leader.

What Is Empathy?

Before we get into the nitty gritty of empathetic leadership, it’s important to review what empathy is and what it is not.

As most of us know, empathy is about being able to understand things from a different person’s point of view. It’s also about being able to recognise how other people may feel in certain situations and supporting them as best as we can.

In the workplace, having empathy for an employee, for example, often sees us offering them a safe space to openly discuss how they feel and responding appropriately. Empathy also enables us to understand why they respond to a situation in a specific way.

But what is empathy not? Empathy is not telling someone how they feel, or sweeping away someone’s fears with a throw-away statement such as “at least...”. For example, if a colleague tells you their dog has passed away and you respond with “at least you have another dog to keep you company”. Many people confuse empathy with sympathy; feeling sorry for someone e.g. “You poor thing!” This can be seen as patronising and there are better ways to express compassion than using sympathy.

Why Is Empathetic Leadership Important?

“Empathy, [which was] once considered a ‘nice to have,’ now needs to be woven into corporate culture. Not all leaders are at ease sharing personal anecdotes or their emotions. But by shifting tone and focus and showing vulnerability, leaders who practice empathy will increase employee engagement, drive inclusion and innovation in the workforce, and foster company loyalty.” - Silke Muenster, Chief Diversity Officer of PMI

In the fast-paced world we currently live in, the importance of empathetic leadership has grown considerably. However, as Silke Muenster states, empathy is no longer something that we class as nice to have. Likewise, showing empathy here and there doesn’t lead to an increase in trust from our people. Nowadays, empathy needs to be at the forefront of what we do inside and outside of the workplace.

Those of us who are empathetic leaders can better understand and relate to our people. But why else is empathetic leadership important? Below, we share some insight.

  • Empathetic leadership leads to higher levels of engagement – in a recent publication, Forbes reported that 76% of employees who receive empathy from their managers and leaders are more engaged than those who do not.

  • Empathy develops trust – in 2021, 87% of employees surveyed in EY US EY Empathy in Business Survey stated that empathy contributes to trust amongst employees and their leaders.

  • Staff turnover increases when leaders fail to display empathy – research conducted in Businesssolver’s State of Workplace Empathy 2022 study shows that 80% of millennials in the United States would leave their job if the workplace become less empathetic.

How To Be a More Empathetic Leader

Coming to the realisation that you want or need to be a more empathetic leader is a fantastic first step in understanding and motivating your people. But it’s not uncommon for you to wonder how you can develop this vital skill. Although many think showing that they can resonate with their people is sufficient, empathetic leadership goes well beyond this.

Becoming a more empathetic leader requires us to develop our communication and listening skills. As a survey by Workplace from Facebook also details, 55% of UK employees believe that leaders who are approachable represent empathetic leadership, it’s also important for us to consider whether our people think we are approachable. If they don’t, it’s time for us to consider why and what we can do about it.

Below, we share some ways that will support you in becoming a more empathetic leader.

Ask Questions

How often do you ask your people questions such as:

  • How are you?

  • How are you really?

  • Is there anything you’d like to talk about?

  • Do you need any support from me or others in your team?

  • Is anything in the workplace affecting you negatively?

  • How are you taking care of yourself outside of the workplace?

  • What could I do better to support you?

  • What could the organisation do better?

Asking questions enables us to learn how our people are, whether anything is affecting them in their professional or personal life, and what we can do to support them better.

In addition to asking your people questions, it’s just as important to ask yourself questions. If you want to understand and motivate others, as well as become more empathetic, you could ask yourself the following:

  • What is an employee dealing with inside or outside of the workplace?

  • What can I do to support my people better?

  • Can I relate to what my people are feeling?

  • When have I felt this way before?

  • What does this person need from me right now?

  • How can I make them feel psychologically safe in my response to them?

By asking yourself the above questions when an employee turns to you for support, you can begin to empathise with them by leaning into how their situation is making them feel.


Asking questions is all well and good, but if you are unable to truly listen to what your people are saying to you, your ability to empathise with them may reduce.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey

As Covey shares, most people listen with the intent to reply. Yet, when we listen with the intent to understand, our people will begin to realise that we care about them, their well-being, and what they are going through.

Develop Self-Awareness

In their book The Neuroscience of Leadership Coaching, Bossons, Riddell, and Sartian state that “more advanced forms of empathy depend on the development of self-awareness.” The authors go on to add that self-awareness “increases the capacity for empathy in two major ways: it allows us to determine and follow social norms based on feedback we receive from others, and it allows us to hypothesize the emotional states of others in relation to our emotion state.”

Critical to our ability to show empathy and be empathetic leaders, self-awareness helps us see how our actions impact those around us. It also strengthens our capability to see things from different perspectives.

For this reason, developing your self-awareness - which is key for change - will support you in becoming a more empathetic leader. Becoming more self-aware can include reviewing your strengths and weaknesses, understanding what triggers you emotionally, and determining how you can manage your own emotions.

Build Emotional Intelligence

Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence model is one that many leaders know. It points out that all change starts with developing self-awareness, and that reviewing our strengths and weaknesses and developing these areas is crucial in supporting others.

“Emotional Intelligence competencies account for 85% of what sets outstanding managers apart from the average.” – Daniel Goleman

The ability to be aware of and understand both your own emotions and the emotions of those around you, strengthening your emotional intelligence will support you in developing your empathetic leadership. It’ll also support you in enhancing your relationships with your people and motivating them too.

But how can you build your emotional intelligence? Well, one way is to take advantage of leadership coaching. Another is to employ tools such as the Emotional Intelligence 360 Assessment.

How Leadership Coaching Can Help

In your journey to becoming a more empathetic leader, it may be worth considering leadership coaching. Working one-to-one with a leadership coach can support you in moving away from judgement, which plays a significant role in your ability to be an empathetic leader.

Additionally, leadership coaching can support you as you develop and increase self-awareness. This is because coaching asks questions that will encourage you to self-reflect and make room for change to take place.

Contact Us Today

As we can see, empathetic leadership is the key to understanding and motivating others. If you’re hoping to understand and motivate your people more, empathetic leadership may well be at the forefront of your mind.

Should this resonate with you, why not get in touch with us today to see how our one-to-one leadership coaching programmes can support you?


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