The Power of Empathy in Adaptive Leadership: 7 Steps You Can Take

Empathy is a core aspect of adaptive leadership - make it about how others feel - corporate training by STEERus

by Amrit & Loralyn


For the last couple of months, we have been featuring a weekly (okay, almost weekly with some variation in our publication cadence) blog article on conscious, inclusive, and adaptive leadership. They sound like the same thing – but they are not. Each has its own nuanced aspects, yet they are all clearly related and anchored by one common feature: emotional intelligence. The “soft skills cousin” of emotional intelligence is empathy: once you learn how to to apply it to your leadership style, there will be no turning back and nothing to stop you!


Conscious Leadership is the Foundation

Conscious leadership is where it all begins – operating subconsciously or without intention does not move teams forward in today’s era of workplace complexities. Inclusive leadership puts an emphasis on empathy and diversity towards the goal of listening to understand where others are to ensure everyone feels seen and heard. Adaptive leadership builds on the other two modalities with the added spin of applying change management principles and agile development.

In a study conducted by Catalyst, 61% employees felt more innovative when they have an empathetic leadership, compared to 13% with less empathetic leaders. 76% felt more engaged. 57% white women and 62% women of color said they were less likely to leave their company when they felt valued by the leadership. 50% of employees with empathetic leadership reported their workplace to be inclusive, compared to just 17% when empathetic leadership is lacking.

Another research published in Evolutionary Biology reveals that when empathy is introduced into decision making at the leadership level, it increases cooperation. Empathy, it was reported, fosters more empathy. The impact of empathy on the workplace is powerful. It helps us recognize, understand, and identify another’s perspective and create a safer work environment for everyone.


Empathy in Leadership

What is empathy? Why is it important for your workplace? What role does empathy play in inclusive leadership? Let’s explore.

Simply put, empathy is the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes. It is our ability to identify and understand the thoughts, perspectives and emotions of people interacting with us.

As an empathetic leader, we need to understand people with intent, care, and concern. And to relate to someone’s situation. To foster empathy, encourage healthy debate among team members in an environment where everyone gets a say irrespective of position / rank and background.

When someone says that they are incapable of dealing with the current work situation and need to pull back, an empathetic leader listens patiently instead of judging the employee. They certainly do not call that employee names, stereotype them, or call them “lazy.” When an employee says that they are facing discrimination at the workplace, an empathetic leader listens carefully and takes measures to create an unbiased, inclusive work environment.


How do you apply empathy to leadership?

Empathetic leaders are not “soft” and ineffective as some naysayers will have you believe. Instead, they are caring humans that have learned how to blend taking charge with bringing others along by understanding what they are feeling. Here are some characteristics of empathetic leadership:

  • Active listening
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Understanding diversity
  • Supportive communication
  • Conflict resolution
  • Trust building
  • Adaptability

Empathetic leaders have some “superpowers” like these:

  • The ability to recognize, predict, and understand the emotional needs of individual team members.
  • The ability to maintain and nurture an atmosphere that promotes employee unity and cultural diversity.
  • An inherent desire to understand what an individual team member is experiencing.
  • The inclination to take genuine interest in what the team members feel and want to communicate.
  • The ability to use active listening skills to gain perspective and communicate compassion.

An empathetic leader is approachable. They make employees feel taken care of and supported. Everybody is made to feel like they can safely participate in conversations and voice new ideas or opinions that may be controversial. Such leaders are flexible – but not at the cost of productivity. In fact, it is the opposite, such that their presence is motivating and empowering, which boosts productivity.


The Path Forward is Personalization

Remember that sympathy shouldn’t be confused with empathy. Although at a higher level, ideally, there shouldn’t be much difference between sympathy and empathy. However, in the real world, sympathy signifies pity which compels you to act and help. You may feel bad about a person’s situation without offering any solution or constructive feedback. You may not even understand or know what problem(s) the person is dealing with, but, as an empathetic person, you can appreciate that the person is going through a difficult time and recognize that you need to treat them with a little extra space and kindness.

As an empathetic leader, you should be able to individualize strategies based on capacities of specific workers. Put their needs first. Ideally, the employees don’t serve the leader; the leader serves the employees.

You need to understand that your employees are not just numbers and statistics on a balance sheet. They are human beings with emotions loaded with sociocultural dynamics. If they don’t feel good because something is going on with them personally, or even professionally within the workplace, how can they be expected to deliver good results?


Nurturing Empathetic Leadership

Countless studies have demonstrated that empathetic leadership ignites passion and propels organizations to new heights. Companies end up with more engaged and loyal employees. Happiness and contentment levels increase, which spurs positive morale. Your company is more competitive and can attract top-notch talent. Conflicts are resolved faster. There is greater collaboration. Productivity skyrockets.

The only question is, why wouldn’t you want to foster empathetic leadership as part of your culture?

The State of Workplace Empathy report says that 69% of CEOs recognize the importance of empathy in the workplace. But here’s the conundrum: 79% struggle to be empathetic. They don’t know what to do. They are even worried how they will be perceived if they are empathetic. Many are concerned about being labeled as “weak” or “not worthy of promotion.”

If empathy doesn’t exist, can it be made to exist? Can people in leadership positions be “taught” to be more empathetic towards their employees? Certainly, yes. Studies show that they can be taught this critical superpower.

It was a long-held belief that people are either empathetic, or they are not. With training, awareness, and sensitization, leaders can learn to become empathetic. Once they do, this has a positive trickle-down effect on the entire organization. Unfortunately, this is typically considered as a “soft skill,” and hence, is often overlooked as a performance indicator.


Bringing Empathy to the Workplace

Research has shown that successful leaders must be “person-focused.” They should be able to work well with people from varying backgrounds, such as countries, cultures, and socio-economic strata. The ability to be compassionate and to be able to connect with people personally and professionally is an attribute that makes leadership highly effective.

There are seven (7) steps that people can take to become more empathetic. As we stated at the beginning of this blog, it all begins with consciousness. The first step is becoming aware of how empathetic you are – or are not.

  1. Understand the significance of embracing empathetic leadership. It is important to understand that this is not another new age cooperate fad. Empathy delivers tangible results. It has a direct impact on employee performance and the company’s balance sheet. It promotes physical and mental well-being in the workplace. All stakeholders have a better quality of life since a major part of their lives is spent in the workplace. Leaders who want to embrace empathy need to understand its financial, cultural, personal, and organizational benefits. This is the first and the most important step.
  2. Improve listening and observational skills. These are very important traits. Empathetic leaders are great listeners. They can pick verbal and non-verbal cues. When they’re talking to people around them, they are “in the moment.” Instead of asserting their authority, they are actively interested in getting another’s perspective. Listening and observational skills can be improved with proper training. There are dedicated courses available for leaders to develop their active listening skills.
  3. Regularly ask questions. Ask questions like: How are you today? Do you have some suggestions for me? How can I help you work better? Are you able to manage your work? What stops you from giving your best? Are you able to communicate?
  4. Be genuinely eager to get to know your team members. The employees of the company are not cogs in a machine. They have likes and dislikes. They have anxieties. They have biases. Their personal and professional lives often overlap. They may have health issues.
  5. Proactively create opportunities to get to know your team members. Schedule individual appointments just to talk to them and get to know them better. Ask them how they feel about the work environment or whether they are comfortable. Make it all about them. Allow them to communicate without fear of any negative reaction. Take a genuine interest in what they have to say.
  6. Don’t hide your vulnerability. Just because you are a leader, it doesn’t mean that you’re not vulnerable to misunderstanding, decision paralysis, lack of ideas and mental and physical obstacles. Share your vulnerabilities when talking to your team members. Seek solutions to your problems. Ask them questions. Let them realize their professional and intellectual capacities. They will feel more comfortable. They will be able to relate better. They will be more forthcoming with their own vulnerabilities. A kinship will develop.
  7. Be the change you want to see in others. In other words, lead by example. Reach out. Create a safe space for everyone. Encourage workers to listen to each other. Embrace mistakes and learn from them. Show genuine care in people’s well-being. Facilitate accommodation and adaptation for different needs. Practice patience.

Above all, accept that empathy can be learned and internalized with proper and sustained training. Sure, it comes more naturally to some, but for many individuals, it comes through learning, orientation, and perception-shaping. Use this knowledge to your advantage by getting a timely edge over the other people who are competing for YOUR next leadership job.




Scroll to Top