It’s Important to be Empathetic as a Leader, Here’s Why

As a leader you’re communicating with people everyday. Your communication skills are going to be tested while dealing with challenges, delays and conflicts. In these situations, how someone is feeling is just as important as what they’re saying.

Enter empathy. It seems overzealous to recommend that leaders approach situations with empathy, but in my experience in dealing with leaders it’s an often overlooked yet vital tool. When an unhappy employee comes to you with an issue, being empathetic to them defuses negative feelings and helps the employees feel confident enough to express their view about a situation. Remember, emotions aren’t always a negative thing.  You don’t want employees to build negative feelings. Instead, you want to foster an environment of positivity, trust and co-operation which stems from being empathetic.

Here are some tips on being a more empathetic leader.

Detect emotions in the conversation

When talking to your team members, look for verbal and non-verbal cues of positive or negative emotions. When you detect that a particular subject may be emotionally charged, create the right environment so your employees feel comfortable enough to share their feelings. Do this by stating your observation about their emotions and then asking an open-ended question.

  • “There seems to be something bothering you about that meeting. How did you feel it went?”
  • Positive emotions: “I haven’t seen you this happy about your work in a while. What is it that you enjoyed doing?”
  • “You seem drained about something. What’s on your mind?”

Keep in mind that it may not always be appropriate to bring up someone’s feelings when others are around. In these cases, make  time to discuss the issue privately. Encouraging your team members to share their feelings with you will help build an inclusive and open working environment.

Take a moment to listen and understand

It’s sometimes tempting to jump in with a solution or answer before your team member has finished their thought. Refrain from talking for a bit, especially during silent pauses, and allow the individual to communicate their feelings before jumping in. Don’t be afraid of silent pauses in the conversation. In fact, allow pauses to happen. A silent pause calms down the conversation and it shows your team member that you’re giving them time to think and talk. Empathizing isn’t just about listening. It’s also about understanding and sharing the feelings of another. You don’t have to always agree, but you should try to understand.

Responding to feelings

As your team members are sharing their thoughts with you, they’re not always looking for a solution.  Sometimes they just want you to understand where they’re coming from. Show that you understand by responding to both the feelings and facts of their statements separately.

  • “It must be difficult feeling that marketing is purposefully trying to make your life harder (feeling) by making you change the UI so many times (fact).”
  • Positive emotions: “You deserve to be proud (feeling) for completing the project on-time and on-budget (fact).”
  • “It sounds isolating (feeling) being the only female developer on the team (fact).”

By responding to both the feelings and facts, you are showing your team member that you understand their attitude toward a situation and how they came to feel that way.

Let’s review. When you detect an emotionally-charged team member, remember to:

  1. Create the right time and place
  2. Listen and understand
  3. And then respond to what they’ve shared with you

Lastly, I’d like to leave you with this video that profiles empathy in a humorous way.

[1] Emotions and Leadership: The Role of Emotional Intelligence


How to be an authentic leader

As a leader, being authentic is one of the most important traits you can have.  Being open, honest and real with your team shows them you’re willing to be vulnerable when working together. When you build that trust with your team, you allow them to build positive relationships with you. It promotes an attitude of respect from your team, and allows them to be more committed, creative, engaged and perform better.

Being authentic means you’re a bona fide leader, valid and veritable. You don’t beat around the bush when it comes to strategic decisions and your employees can trust you to do what’s best for the team and the company.

So, how do you become a more authentic leader?

Act with Integrity

Don’t fuel the rumour mill and participate in gossip. Gossip leads to a slippery slope of unwarranted drama amongst employees, inciting fear and suspicion on the team.

Sarcasm can be a little contentious. I have a very sarcastic sense of humour, but it only comes out with my family and close friends who know me well enough not to take offense to that humour. In a professional setting, sarcasm can be interpreted as dishonest. Gossip, rumours and sarcasm chip away at your integrity and don’t help in strengthening your leadership.

Be honest and humble with your successes. When getting credit for your successes, accept it and share the credit with anyone else who helped you. Share the wealth with your team so they don’t feel resentful about not getting acknowledged for the hard work they put in.

Promote Trust

Deliver a consistent, accurate message regardless of your audience. Stay true and strong to your message – don’t say one thing to one person, while saying something completely different to another person. That fickleness will eventually come back to you.

Remember: your team members don’t work in solitude. They talk to each other and any inconsistencies in your message will be circulated.

Make commitments you can keep. This is easier said than done, but it means being honest with yourself about what you and your team have the capacity to take on.

Finally, take trust seriously. Protect confidential or personal information. If you do share any sensitive information with team members, ensure you review your organization’s policies regarding such information.

Admit Mistakes

We all make mistakes. And there’s a level of understanding for those who are courageous enough to admit their mistakes.  Being honest about your mistakes is the best way to mitigate them.

This means you tactfully admit when you can’t fully deliver on a commitment that in hindsight, you probably shouldn’t have taken on. If you realize you can’t meet a commitment, immediately inform those it affects. Be open about your shortcomings. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a capable leader, it means you know your limits and would rather put out a project that is high quality than something mediocre.

Share Your Thoughts

Give full, honest answers to tough questions while staying as positive as possible. Don’t try to sugarcoat or avoid a topic. If you can’t go into details for confidentiality reasons, explain why.

But also, stand up for what you believe is right. Contribute to the conversation by sharing your feelings and rationale when appropriate. Don’t be afraid if your perspective doesn’t have support from other leaders. As they say, if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.

Display Confidence Without Arrogance

Confidence is important in leadership, but not many leaders have it. Try using nonverbal signals like eye contact, body language, or tone of voice to support your message.

It’s important to note that there is a difference between confidence and arrogance. If you can portray confidence while following the tips in this post, you are well on your way to enhancing authenticity as a leader.

1 The Effect of Authentic Leadership on Employee Trust and Employee Engagement
2 Shaw Foundations of Leadership Certificate program


My first post

Hi, I’m a Software Development Manager in Toronto, Canada.

I’ll be using this blog mainly for ranting about topics relating to management, development and project process.

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