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The Critical Importance of Empathy In Leadership

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

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The Critical Importance of Empathy

In my lifetime, I have not seen a greater opportunity for leading with empathy than the past three years. This rings especially true when we look at the exponential rise of tech layoffs often met with widespread animosity and criticism due to several disconcerting reasons that many feel at best expose a tone deaf response to market volatility, and at worst heartlessness.

Firstly, many feel amidst a global pandemic and economic downturn, eliminating jobs seems ruthlessly opportunistic, fueling resentment among employees and the public alike. Additionally, some of the tech giants have continued to post impressive profits during a period of uncertainty for everyone who lost their jobs, leading many to question whether all options were seriously considered before the layoffs. the ethical implications of prioritizing profit margins over employee well-being.

Moreover, the abruptness and lack of transparency in some layoff announcements are construed by some as a disregard for loyalty and dedication exhibited by affected workers. This apparent insensitivity further exacerbates the negative perception around an already tough situation.

These unfortunate and sometimes damaging actions are often seen as a reminder that even in times of hardship, those at the helm remain untouched by empathy or solidarity—a reality that has led ex employees to use social media to blast, and even exact revenge on their former employers, which is never an appropriate response.

It seems that with all of the worry fueled by concerns over profitability, and product/services marketability during the economic downturn that led to the early string of layoffs, the basic tenets of emotional intelligence on both sides have been relegated to a margin or footnote from bygone days. It's time to bring emotional intelligence back as people are the backbone of every company, and a much needed resource. We can all do better.

Let's start with empathy in leadership. In a recent article, The Wall Street Journal shared how some managers advocate getting angry, and yelling at employees, but only if they really mean it? However, great leaders know that empathy is a fundamental quality that sets them apart as caring humans that people want to emulate, and follow.

It might be helpful to define empathy so that we can frame it in its proper context. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It's like stepping into someone else's shoes and experiencing their emotions firsthand. It goes beyond sympathy, which is simply feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is about truly connecting with others on an emotional level.

One scientific study that supports empathy in leadership is the research conducted by Dr. Dacher Keltner and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley. In their study, they explored the effects of empathy on effective leadership within organizations.

Participants were randomly assigned to two groups: one that received training in empathic listening and another that received no training. The leaders who received the empathy training showed remarkable improvements in their ability to understand and respond to the emotions of their team members. They also reported higher levels of trust and satisfaction within their teams.

Moreover, employees working under empathetic leaders exhibited increased engagement, motivation, and productivity compared to those with non-empathetic leaders. This study demonstrates that empathy plays a critical role in enhancing leadership effectiveness by fostering positive relationships, improving communication skills, and promoting employee well-being and organizational success. It highlights the importance of incorporating empathy into leadership development programs to cultivate exceptional leaders who can inspire and lead with compassion and understanding.

In stark contrast, One scientific study that demonstrates the detrimental effects of yelling at employees is the research conducted by Professors Nathan Bowling and Liu-Qin Yang from Wright State University. In their study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, they investigated the impact of abusive supervision on job performance and employee well-being.

The researchers collected data from a sample of 243 employees working in various industries and analyzed the relationships between perceived supervisor yelling, employee outcomes, and psychological distress. The results indicated that frequent exposure to yelling or shouting by supervisors had numerous negative repercussions: lower job satisfaction, decreased organizational commitment, and higher levels of emotional exhaustion and stress.

In addition to the previously stated perilous effects, yelling at workers also reduced productivity, increased absenteeism rates and a lowered quality of work performance were also experienced. This study provides compelling evidence that yelling at employees not only has a profound personal toll but also adversely affects overall workplace functioning and employee-related outcomes.

In our recent past, we have been fortunate to witness empathetic leadership, and its astounding effect on a company's culture, and people. One great example is Former Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly who exemplified empathy as a leader through several key actions and decisions.

First and foremost, he understood the importance of connecting with his employees on a personal level. Joly frequently engaged in open dialogue with his staff, actively listening to their concerns and addressing them in a thoughtful manner. He recognized that being empathetic meant being genuinely present and available for his team members, fostering an environment of trust and support.

Moreover, Joly implemented employee-centric initiatives such as flexible work hours and comprehensive benefits packages, demonstrating a genuine care for the well-being of his workforce. Additionally, he prioritized customer satisfaction by empowering employees to make autonomous decisions at the front lines to resolve customer issues promptly. By leading with empathy, Joly created a culture of compassion both within Best Buy's internal operations and in their interactions with customers, ultimately driving the company's success under his leadership.

There are several strategies leaders can implement to enhance an empathetic approach towards employees that are effective. Firstly, active listening plays a crucial role in understanding employees' concerns and needs. By offering undivided attention, maintaining eye contact, and validating their emotions, leaders create an environment where employees feel heard and valued.

Secondly, fostering open communication channels promotes transparency and trust. Leaders should encourage dialogue by organizing regular one-on-one meetings, and anonymous suggestion boxes to ensure employees have a platform to express their thoughts freely.

Thirdly, demonstrating empathy through actions is imperative. By recognizing the efforts of individuals or teams and acknowledging their accomplishments publicly, leaders not only motivate but also show that they genuinely care about their employees' well-being.

Fourthly, offering support during challenging times or personal hardships exhibits compassion. Leaders can provide resources such as counseling services or flexibility in work arrangements to accommodate individual needs.

The fifth suggestion is for leaders to acknowledge individual needs and adapt management styles accordingly to create a sense of inclusivity and respect for diverse perspectives. Also, promoting teamwork and collaboration while discouraging competition or negative behaviors among team members is a great way to promote care, and respect among workers.

Lastly, leaders must lead by example by displaying emotional intelligence themselves. This entails managing one's own emotions effectively while being attuned to others' feelings. Some corporate decisions are tough to make, and may come across worse than it was intended with far reaching consequences on a company's image, and reputation.

A leader that does not figure empathy into the equation is not considering the longterm benefits, and unintended consequences.

By incorporating these empathy-driven practices into your leadership approach, and decision making process can help establish positive environments that foster employee happiness and productivity alike.

It is a mindset shift to start with empathy with everything you do that has the potential of impacting other humans. However, the overall

goodwill will go a long way to soften any future crash landings, and further establish a positive legacy for the organization, and you.


Hiring the right leadership talent that promotes a healthy, collaborative, and empathetic work environment is key. If you are a leader passively entertaining new opportunities, feel free to connect with us. We would love to hear from you. If your organization wants to hire results oriented compassionate leaders then our search firm is for you. Reach out here.


About Recruiting Awesome. We are a top rated boutique executive search firm with a hyper focus on confidential and discreet search services globally. We bring a highly personalized touch to your leadership engagements. We network with fresh visionaries, and our projects are never outsourced. You partner with one key contact for the entirety of your search.

We welcome assisting you on your internal leadership opportunities. Do not hesitate in reaching out here. Some of the greatest breakthroughs happen in times like these. If your organization wants to hire results oriented compassionate leaders then our search firm is for you. If you are a leader passively entertaining new opportunities, feel free connect with us. We would love to hear from you.. Let's start this exciting journey together.

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