The Importance of Developing Empathy as a Leader

By Andy Johnson

Key Ways to Develop This Vital Trait

Empathy is perhaps the most valuable skill for human beings to possess. There is increasing evidence that empathic living with others is the much-needed antidote to the self-absorbed individualism we’ve been suffering from as a culture and in the workplace for the last century. Author Roman Krznaric describes this as the movement from understanding humans as being primary driven by self-preservation, “homo self-centricus,” to being primarily socially connected to others, “homo empathicus.”

We sat down with faculty member Andy Johnson to talk about the importance of empathy for leaders. 

What is empathy?
I love Roman Krznaric’s definition of empathy. He defines it as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.”  It’s different from sympathy, which is feeling sorry for or taking pity on someone else. Sympathy views the other person from outside, while remaining superior.  Empathy feels the other person from inside, as an equal.

Empathy can be either cognitive or affective or both. Cognitive empathy, merely understanding what someone is feeling—their perspective, without necessarily understanding their feelings—can easily be misused as merely another means of pursuing one’s own ends more effectively. The deepest sense of empathy involves both perceiving and feeling together. To empathize fully is to “get it,” to understand the life of the other person in a way that impacts us personally.

Can you give an example of empathy in the workplace?

It is hard for some of us to feel genuine empathy toward others whose work life differs so greatly from our own. Executives in the C-suite are often out of touch with the lives and experiences of workers on a manufacturing line. Leaders who feel genuine empathy for those workers are able to richly imagine what it would be like to be in those shoes. Being able to feel what those individuals feel and vividly imagine the way their work impacts their families is the empathic bridge on which substantially different and better relationships with them is formed.

I recently had a client who I was able to help enter empathically into the life and situation of a subordinate. The irritation he felt over her annoying behaviors melted in light of being able to begin to see her through new eyes as I helped her unfold her story for him. Their relationship has been different ever since.

This principle has historically been shown to significantly change the dynamic in the workplace, and even save lives. One of the clearest examples of this is Oscar Schindler. Schindler moved from being a boss to his Jewish workers, exploiting them for personal gain, to someone willing to put his own life on the line to save theirs. The key to this paradigm shift was empathy, which started when he took the time to actually get to know Itzhak Stern, his Jewish accountant. As Itzhak became human in the mind and heart of Schindler, so did his workers. The rest is proverbial history.

Why is empathy often difficult for many leaders?

Leadership in the West suffers from a bias favoring extroversion as a requisite trait. This particularly connects to the positive emotion of happiness or joy associated with extroversion. The problem is that empathy is more related to what is sometimes referred to as a negative emotion: sadness. So, many leaders have an empathy deficit because they have a sadness deficit. To be empathetic, in the truest sense, requires that one enter into one’s own pain and that in knowing our own pain we are able to connect with the pain of others. In other words, we may have an empathy deficit because we have a biased understanding of the requisite traits for leaders. The answer here is sometimes referred to as emodiversity: giving ourselves permission to experience the full range of healthy human emotions including sadness, which is the doorway to empathy.

Empathy is also difficult for many leaders because they have not developed it themselves as children. We learn empathy first and foremost by experiencing it with our primary attachment figures in childhood. A lack of secure attachment in early childhood can stunt the development of empathy. Empathy, in other words, is more caught than taught and can be hard to improve later in the life span. For leaders who are also parents, this underlines the need for giving empathy to our kids now.

Additionally, for men in particular, sadness and empathy are often connected to female stereotypes and discouraged as aspects of healthy male development.  Many of us were taught that, “Big boys don’t cry.” If you haven’t developed empathy early in life, it can be quite difficult to cultivate later. For these reasons, many men, some of whom are leaders, often suffer with varying degrees of alexithymia, which is a deficit of vital emotionality. Empathy is one of those key emotions that is often hard for them to feel.

Why is empathy important?

The discussion about the primary importance of emotional intelligence has been ongoing for some time. Within the broader area of emotional intelligence, two aspects are particularly important: self-awareness and empathy. I think the two are related. Self-awareness allows us to see the myriad ways in which we are lacking or struggle, and opens our hearts to see the struggles of others in an empathetic manner. I need to see my own pain and be honest with myself before I can see yours. If not, I begin to see myself and to see you in an abstract, less than fully human, way.

Simon Sinek recently delineated this the “problem of abstraction,” or seeing people as things. This is an unfortunate consequence of decades of looking at employees as resources or numbers on spreadsheets (thanks to Taylor and others) as opposed to being people with rich and interesting lives. This is the same problem Martin Buber described as I-it versus I-thou relationships. Seeing the other person in the dignity of thou is the key to moving beyond the problem of abstraction, as well as the impact that problem has, not only on our happiness at work, but also on the bottom line.

Empathy, then, is the doorway into deeper, safer, more vulnerable relationships, which are not only more rewarding than their shallow alternatives, but also the basis on which organizations can achieve optimal results. Relationships and empathic communication are the wheels on which the company moves. Want to understand the health of an organization? Look at the level of empathy in the leadership. There is nothing more important.

What are two things you can do to improve your empathy with coworkers?

As noted above, developing empathy can be quite difficult. The brain, however, does retain some elasticity across the life span. In fact, our brains possess various traits related to social intelligence that make development of empathy as an adult possible. We can tap into our untapped potential for this essentially human trait. Here are two things leaders can do to improve their empathy with coworkers:

  • Rewire your brain through compassion training—practicing mindful attention to other people’s feeling and experiences. This is best accomplished experientially with other humans rather than merely book learning. A leader, for example, could actively practice paying attention to the experiences of those they lead, focusing on staying in the moment and in the shoes of the other.
  • Shorten empathic distance from others by getting to know them genuinely.  Leverage your ability to be naturally curious about others to help you learn more about them, to humanize them like Stern was to Schindler. For a leader, this may involve inviting someone you don’t know for a cup of coffee or lunch, and asking good questions about their life and experiences. Talk less, ask good questions, and listen attentively.

However a leader chooses to deepen empathy, there is no alternative. Wherever you find yourself currently, it is worth the effort to go forward. Because empathy is one of the best indicators of the quality of your relationships, it is the key to your connection with others. Determine a plan today to increase this most important competency.