The Value of Empathy in Leadership

Published: Aug 27, 2018
Modified: May 20, 2020


Surprise—the people you lead expect you to care about them. If you don’t show empathy in the workplace, you are not demonstrating good leadership, and you may be hurting your company’s success, says leadership expert and executive coach Loren Margolis.

“Generational shifts have brought more empathy to the fore,” she says. Different expectations from Millennials, multicultural workforces, and mergers bringing workplaces together have pushed empathy to the forefront of what’s desired in a leader.

Empathy and collaboration are edging out command and control in leadership

Margolis, CEO of Training & Leadership Success, told earlier this year that a lack of empathy in leaders will drive talented employees elsewhere. “Value-driven Gen Y and Gen Z talent will continue to leave command-and-control cultures for collaborative workplaces,” she said in the article. "The value of leadership empathy will be sky-high in 2018.”

She offers some key points about empathetic leadership:

Empathy is equal opportunity. The idea that women are more “naturally” empathetic has no scientific backing, Margolis says. Women are “allowed” to be more demonstrative: “It’s a little bit more accepted for a woman to touch someone on the shoulder and say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’” she points out. Women also have the difficulty of the “double bind,” where they want to display empathy but feel they have to display toughness.

But men, who may have been taught to act tough, have equal capacity to have and display empathy, she says.

Empathy can be taught. “Empathy is your ability to step into someone else’s world,” Margolis says. “It’s a competency.” She trains executives in increasing their empathetic skills, and she tells them to start small—with small talk. Notice the pictures on your staff members’ desks, their family, places they’ve been, artwork. Show interest and ask them about those items. Then, in a more formal one-on-one meeting, ask them what motivates them at work or if there’s anything that would help them in performing their jobs, she says.

Empathetic leadership requires action. If an employee is struggling with something, such as not handing in work on time, use empathy when you find out why. “‘Tell me why you didn’t make your deadline. I’m concerned,’” Margolis suggests a leader could say. There are always outside-of-work issues that can affect someone’s job, and a reasonable leader can empathize with that. But follow-up action is needed. You could say, “I empathize. I really appreciate why this assignment was difficult. At the same time, we still have to meet our deadlines. So, I’d like to hear your thoughts on how we can make that happen.”

This is using a “coaching approach” to leadership instead of a “telling approach,” Margolis explains.

Empathy is essential for success. You have to demonstrate you care for people. That’s especially important when you have a multicultural, multigenerational staff. You have to take the time to get to know them, she says. “They’re not going to follow you or buy into your ideas unless you spend time getting into their world,” Margolis notes. “It has a very real impact in your ability to rally people around you.”

If you can’t show people that you care, you won’t go very far as a leader, Margolis says. “Inspiring people around you—that’s what being a leader is,” she says.