It’s Time for Leaders To Be More Empathetic Than Ever

By Maxim Savelyev, Product Manager, DFIN
Two women sitting at a table in-front of a window having a conversation

The modern workplace is undergoing rapid changes. In the evolving corporate landscape, empathy-centered leadership has become more important than ever.

According to the Wall Street Journal, roughly 20% of companies in the U.S. provide empathy training as part of management development. Characterized as the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of others, empathy is a difficult skill to master – but it can be especially instrumental for leaders in today’s climate.

How empathy affects performance
A study from the Center for Creative Leadership shows that empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who display empathy toward their employees and colleagues are considered better performers by their own bosses.

A lack of empathy can have serious business costs. In 2018, United Airlines employees forcibly dragged a physician off an overbooked flight. The incident caused public outrage and, soon after, airline CEO Oscar Munoz made a public statement. However, it took him three tries before his response showed any empathywith each miss only adding fire to the company’s publicity nightmare.

How empathy improves motivation
Leaders today need to be more people-focused and show colleagues they care for their needs and achievements. When employees feel valued and appreciated, their loyalty, productivity, and engagement grow. A Salesforce report shows that, when managers display empathy and pay attention to their employees’ needs, the latter are 4.6 times more motivated to produce high-quality work. This extends to virtual teams too.

Furthermore, people who feel that management hears their voices and expresses interest in what they have to say are more motivated to share and discuss their ideas. This fosters innovation and leads to a more collaborative workplace.

How empathy helps maintain relationships
Meaningful, sustainable relationships determine our success in life. Building such relationships requires time, effort, and emotional intelligence. High levels of empathy enable leaders to become more cognizant of employees’ feelings, give genuine recognition, and develop trust and respect in the workplace. How does that work? When people feel understood, they are more willing to extend understanding in return – even toward people and opinions with whom they may not necessarily agree. This creates ground for productive cooperation. When such an understanding is continually reinvigorated by new empathy, connections are constantly maintained – strengthening the fabric of the relationship.

Empathy during remote work
In an office setting, impromptu conversations and social interactions that happen organically in common areas encourage colleagues to connect and demonstrate empathy. Facial expressions, body language, and reactions also help people stay more attuned to the team’s states and needs.

Leading from afar, it is now essential to cultivate empathy by opening communication with employees. When interacting with teammates virtually, it is important to listen carefully, try to understand their point of view, and take action based on the needs and the situation. Further steps include making human connections before getting down to business, and expressing gratitude for team members’ hard work.

Don’t forget that people remember how you make them feel – not exactly what you said. Making colleagues feel appreciated, heard, and connected can produce truly impressive results even in times of uncertainty.