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Is empathy the most important attribute in a leader? The traditional view is that leaders need to be strong, decisive and influential. These are all still important characteristics, but recent research indicates that empathy may just be the most significant trait of our times.

As we navigate the challenges wrought on our lives as a result of the pandemic, it’s become clear that those leaders that are best able to empathise are going to be rewarded. Employees are experiencing multiple kinds of stress. Data indicates there has been a decline in mental health with increases in measures such as anxiety, sadness, exhaustion and stress.

Leaders who are empathetic are able to recognise the pressure their staff have been under beyond their work responsibilities. They are able to identify this and work to navigate the individual needs of employees. As CEO Gary Vaynerchuk put it, “if you’re a leader by nature your job is to stop pressure at your level, not deploy more of it underneath you.” Gone are the days where leaders can justify ill-treatment of staff because they’re feeling stressed. 

A recent US study conducted by Catalyst found that empathy has some powerful constructive effects:

Key Findings of the Study

  • Empathy is a force for productivity, life-work integration, and positive work experiences
  • Empathy boosts productivity
    • Employees with empathic managers and leaders are more innovative and engaged in their work than are employees with less empathic managers and leaders.
  • Women of colour experience less burnout when they have more empathic senior leaders
  • Empathic leaders respect employee life circumstances
  • Empathic leaders support both life and work needs
  • Empathic leaders foster inclusion
  • Senior leader empathy is linked to reduced intent to leave

These findings are illuminating but they also make intuitive sense, we all know that a more understanding workplace makes it a happier one. When leaders foster support and understanding, then the outcomes are beneficial for all.

Signs You’re an Empathetic Leader

  • You treat staff with respect. You don’t shout and belittle them when they make mistakes. You are understanding.
  • You see employees as individuals. You recognise that everyone has circumstances outside of their working lives that greatly impact them and their capacity to work. You’re flexible, understanding and your staff feel they can talk to you.
  • You are inclusive. Workplaces with empathetic leaders tend to be more inclusive ones. If you are an empathetic and understanding leader you will attract and retain employees with diverse backgrounds.
  • You have low turnover. Employees leave workplaces for a multitude of reasons, but high turnover is often an indicator of a toxic work culture. A boss who lacks empathy brings negativity and discontent. If you have low turnover, it’s a good sign you’re your employees are happy and therefore more likely to be efficient and productive.