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A manager’s guide to leading with empathy in the workplace

By Dr. Kevin L. Wilhelmsen
June 30, 2020 • 3 minute read

A manager leading with empathy listens, lets employees know they’re heard and encourages them to strive for success.

Business leaders are facing unprecedented challenges. We are still navigating the impacts of a global pandemic, and a recent wave of social unrest is shining a light on the important role leaders play in supporting those within their circles of influence.

Now is the time to acknowledge hurt and struggles, address shortcomings within our structures, and promote understanding. It is a time to come together beyond business objectives. Now is the time for those in roles of authority to “up their game” by leading with empathy.

Why is empathy important in the workforce?

Empathy is recognizing and understanding the feelings, motives and situations of others and being sensitive to them. When you use your empathetic leadership skills, it helps you better understand why and how employees react to certain situations and gives you insight into their perceptions. This is an important leadership skill always, but it’s even more critical in times of uncertainty.

A survey of managers and non-managers conducted by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that employees have higher levels of trust in CEOs who exhibited greater levels of empathy. [1] Trust is necessary for collaborative performance and ultimately for success.

Some leaders may be skeptical that they can develop empathy as a skill. In fact, I’ve heard other leaders state, “I am not that type of person” or “I guess I could be more caring or empathetic if I was raised that way.” The truth is empathy can be developed. The key is to focus on communication and listening.

Poor listening skills can lead to poor relationships and poor performance, which benefits no one. Let your employees know you are open to conversation. When they do approach you, actively listen to them while maintaining eye contact, avoid interruptions, pay attention to their non-verbal behavior as well as your own. Remember that communication includes speaking, writing, reading and listening. Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith said that listening is the primary skill that separates the great leaders from the near-great leaders. [2]

As a manager, listen… truly listen

In order to demonstrate empathetic leadership, you need to take a genuine interest in your employees’ circumstances. Act as a person first and a manager second in your communication. Don’t just jump straight into a business-related discussion. I start each employee conversation by asking how they are doing, how they are handling recent events, and if there’s anything I can do to help as we continue to work towards our goals under these circumstances.

Seek to understand

Authentic leaders strive to understand and consider the circumstances that may impact an employee’s work. When an employee communicates to you that they are experiencing a challenge, it poises you to better provide guidance and support them within the scope of their job. Consider ways you might be able to alleviate stressors while still maintaining expectations. For instance, in some situations it may be appropriate to temporarily reassign duties as an employee works through personal and professional obstacles.

Recognize and appreciate the person’s point of view

Let your employees know you see them as more than a deadline or a deliverable.

Being empathetic means we recognize and appreciate the feelings of others and their view and perspective; we understand the needs of others and we let others know that we care. And, when people feel supported, they respond in kind. From a business perspective, this builds rapport and loyalty within the organization.

Build a safe space for learning and growth

When you use empathy in management, in times of both turmoil and calm, you help your team members feel safe in work situations that may be challenging. After a failure or error, employees will look to their manager to better understand where they fell short and guidance on how to do it right the next time. When you seek to understand your employees, you’re better able to guide performance improvement and those who are excelling will stretch themselves.

Dr. Kevin L. Wilhelmsen is Dean of the College of Business & Information Technology at University of Phoenix

[1] Source link for Institute of Leadership and Management: Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM). (2018). Index of Leadership Trust 2018. Retrieved 7 Feb 2020,
from https://www.institutelm.com/resourceLibrary/trust-2018.html

[2] The paraphrase from Marshall Goldsmith comes from  https://www.marshallgoldsmith.com/articles/the-skill-that-separates/.