Your company: We’re primed to be empathetic – add it to your leadership toolkit


The images that are currently reaching us in our various media channels are indeed harrowing. If it’s not the remains of Mariupol and the devastation left by the senseless bombing, it’s the images of those poor people fleeing their homes to a safer place. Like you, my heart goes out to you all. Having never been in such a situation of injustice, I try very hard to empathize with the Ukrainians, the Syrians and other displaced people.

But I am also deeply encouraged by the sympathetic response from the Irish public. We may be a neutral country, but we are not neutral or ambivalent about human suffering. It makes me very proud to hear the stories of Irish families who embraced the refugees and invited them to live in their homes.

This national response is guided by a deep sense of empathy for the unfortunate. We are programmed to be empathetic. Research from the University of Virginia has shown that when we witness a threat to our friends, we experience activity in the same part of the brain that is affected when we are threatened ourselves. Empathy is often followed by some level of “caring in action” such as: B. reaching into our pockets or opening our homes.

On a different level of criticality, but worrying nonetheless, are the consequences of the recent closure of Roadbridge UK and events at P&O Ferries in the UK. These examples are a dramatic upheaval for those who have lost their livelihoods. Uncertainty about what the future holds for them will cause a lot of stress and tension in the family. These events trigger a similar empathic response. None of us want it to happen to us.

But it doesn’t have to be life-threatening events that cause stress. The workplace can be a terrible place for some people when the company culture is negative. Research shows that productivity and the customer experience are negatively impacted when rudeness, disrespect, aggression, or unfairness are apparent.

Empathy can be a powerful antidote. When empathy is evident, particularly among leaders, the organization benefits from improved innovation, engagement, inclusivity, and retention. So let’s examine how you can bring more empathy into the workplace.

How to bring empathy to the fore in your leadership toolkit

1 Start thinking less about yourself. Realize that power comes from building trust rather than persuading yourself. Find opportunities to honor others with generosity. Be authentic; it will generate a sufficient and willing following of you as a leader.

I wish leaders were more humble. I’ve seen leaders take ideas from their team and present them to their own peers as their own. Humility paves the way for more empathy.

2 Resist the temptation to make quick judgments about others. If someone is out of shape, think about what could be causing it. It could be something internal causing it like the job itself, the team, the capacity, mismatched expectations and so on. But it could also be something in that person’s private life. Be aware when a colleague needs help and be proactive in offering it.

I remember having dinner with a client who had a reputation for being a tough and cold CEO. We chatted about one of his older colleagues and how she was below average. When I told him she was caring for her terminally ill mother, he changed. But I didn’t have to tell him.

3 Develop your team and remove obstacles. With the pace most companies are moving at these days, it’s often easier to issue orders from the top floor and expect them to be followed. However, there will always be obstacles. An empathic leader asks the question in advance and listens to the answers. Yes, it can be appropriate to challenge the team to proceed with the task and deliver it on time. But there can be times when the obstacles are greater than your ability to overcome them. An empathetic leader helps remove these obstacles.

4 True empathy starts with listening. You know that empathy means putting yourself in another person’s shoes. But how that person is feeling isn’t always obvious. So take the time to listen to understand. And listening begins with safe questions.

The last word

I took a counseling course more than 20 years ago that introduced empathy as a key skill. When you empathize with another person instead of judging them, you come to a resolution faster.

To be clear, empathy is not about being a gentle touch and a no-brainer for manipulative employees. Used effectively, it can transform your leadership style and the culture of your organization. As I said, we are prepared for it. But for some of us, we need to flip the power switch to the “on” position.

Alan O’Neill, author of Culture Matters and Premium is the New Black, is keynote speaker and owner of Kara, a strategy, culture and people development specialist. Visit for help with your business Your company: We’re primed to be empathetic – add it to your leadership toolkit

Fry Electronics Team

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