How to build an empathetic leadership style

Anja Bojic

Last updated on: September 16, 2022

If you’re up to date with the latest business communication trends, you probably know that empathy, empathetic leadership, and empathic communication are what most leaders are trying to achieve. 

As companies are being called out for their hustle culture approach, leaders should focus more on restoring humanity in their workplace. Yet, as Rob Volpe, the CEO at Ignite 360 notes, “there remains a lot of confusion around empathy in general and that is creating challenges for leaders.” 

According to Businessolver’s 2022 State of Workplace Empathy report, Volpe’s got a point. 

About 69% of CEOs believe it’s their job to foster empathy in the workplace but 79% struggle to be empathetic. 

Volpe further elaborates: 

“CEOs recognize they have a role to play with empathy, but they don’t know what to do and worry about how they will be perceived if they are empathetic. It’s time to do a breakdown of empathy and help leaders at all levels understand what it really means to be empathetic and a leader.”

In light of this, we’ll devote this blog post to:

  • Defining empathetic leadership and outlining the qualities of empathetic leaders. 
  • Exploring the importance of empathy in leadership.
  • Taking a look at some famous examples of empathetic leaders.
  • Listing some actionable tips for building an empathetic leadership style. 
How to build an empathetic leadership style - cover

Table of Contents

What is empathetic leadership?

First things first — defining empathetic leadership. 

Several experts on empathy and leadership shared their insights on what empathetic leadership is. 

Let’s see what they had to say. 

Empathetic leadership is smart leadership 

For Volpe, an empathetic leader is a smart leader. 

He elaborates on his claim further: 

Rob Volpe - the CEO at Ignite 360

“They are truly taking into account the perspective of the humans in their organization as well as the needs of the business and customers in order to provide a true 360 view as they make decisions and communicate.”

Empathetic leadership is about seeing things from someone else’s perspective 

For Brandon Wilkes, Marketing Manager at The Big Phone Store, empathetic leadership is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. 

In his words:

Brandon Wilkes - Marketing Manager at The Big Phone Store

“It is about being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. 

Empathic leaders are able to build strong relationships and create a sense of trust and connection. They are able to see both the individual and the bigger picture, and they are able to find common ground and create win-win solutions. 

Empathic leadership is about creating a space where people feel safe to be themselves, share their ideas, and be heard and respected.”

Empathetic leadership creates a space for understanding others 

CEO of Emergenetics International, Marie Unger, defines empathetic leadership in the following way: 

Marie Unger - CEO of Emergenetics International

“I define empathetic leadership as having a genuine interest in understanding the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of others and embracing multiple perspectives. 

Increasingly, employees want to work for organizations where they can make a positive impact. As we’ve seen through the Great Resignation, people want to work for companies where their voices matter and they feel valued. 

An empathetic leadership style creates this space for staff.”

Empathetic leadership is leading with love 

From the point of view of Rani Puranik, Executive VP and Global CFO at Worldwide Oilfield Machine, empathetic leadership translates to leading with love: 

Rani Puranik - Executive VP and Global CFO at Worldwide Oilfield Machine

“Being able to relate and resonate with your employee plays a huge factor in leading with empathy as well so that we can both raise up and go higher together.”

Empathetic leadership puts the needs of others first

CEO of Rhythm Systems, Patrick Thean, defines empathetic leadership as one’s ability to put other people first: 

Patrick Thean - CEO of Rhythm Systems

“An empathetic leader is one who pauses to understand and consider the experiences and needs of others, then provides what the other person needs to succeed.” 

Moreover, Art Shaikh, Founder and CEO of CircleIt, thinks that understanding others better can help leaders create better company cultures, too: 

Art Shaikh - Founder and CEO of CircleIt

Empathetic leadership is being able to understand the concerns and needs of your team and developing a culture based on that, but also being mindful of the needs of your company.

Founder and CEO at Kim Crowder Consulting, Kim Crowder, believes that empathetic leadership should even go a step further and dismantle its own biases to allow others to thrive. 

In her words: 

Kim Crowder - Founder and CEO at Kim Crowder Consulting

“Leaders who actively seek to dismantle their own biases to provide space and opportunities for team members who have the least amount of privilege to thrive.”

— 

Being an empathetic and compassionate leader isn’t an easy endeavor, but it’s a very important one. 

Let’s find out why. 

Why is empathetic leadership more critical than ever?

Thean admits that he is drawn to leaders who care about people. 

He believes that empathetic leaders should try to gain their employees’ trust because that’s the best way to inspire them to become the best versions of themselves: 

Patrick Thean - CEO of Rhythm Systems

“We are in a time when employees have the courage to choose who they want to work for and spend their working hours with. 

People quit people. People typically do not quit companies. 

Trust is important if you want to retain your best employees. It’s also important if you wish to make a positive impact on the people that you serve. Most importantly, it will help any leader be the best leader they can possibly be.”

Moreover, Wilkes believes that empathetic leadership allows leaders to connect with their employees on a deeper level:

Brandon Wilkes - Marketing Manager at The Big Phone Store

“By understanding and empathizing with their employees, leaders can create a more positive and productive work environment. In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing business world, it’s more important than ever for leaders to be able to relate to and connect with their employees. With the challenges and stresses of the modern workplace, it’s more important than ever for leaders to be able to show empathy and understanding, too.” 

From my perspective, cultivating and maintaining empathy is hard, and even more so in the modern business world — the one in which remote work is the new norm. 

I’d love to touch upon this, too. 

How crucial is empathetic leadership in a remote setting? 

Since more companies have switched to a remote or distributed work model, living and breathing empathy can be a bit harder. 

Despite that, Shaikh thinks that this switch emphasizes the need for empathetic leaders even more: 

Art Shaikh - Founder and CEO of CircleIt

“Empathetic leadership is more critical now when companies have moved to hybrid or remote work models. 

Understanding that an employee may end up having to deal with an issue in their home or that they want to take care of an errand is something that most empathetic leaders will do without an issue.” 

In one episode of the Level Up Engineering Podcast, Jossie Haines, Executive Coach for Engineering Leaders at Jossie Haines Consulting, talked about the importance of empathetic leadership in a remote environment. 

Haines believes that leaders leading remote teams should have more empathy and understanding for the external challenges people might be facing daily — on top of work responsibilities. 

Challenges to empathetic leadership in a remote environment 

According to Haines, cultivating empathy in a remote work setting can be challenging because: 

  • We’re missing a large portion of the verbal and physical cues, which makes it harder to engage with the person on a deeper level.
  • We have to be so much more intentional about building our relationships (since we’re devoid of running into people in the coffee room and small-talk situations we can use to get to know someone better). 

Tips for showcasing empathy in a remote environment 

To be able to take empathy to the next level when working remotely, Haines recommends the following:  

Tip #1: Spend the first 5 to 10 minutes of your 1:1 meetings casually chatting with the employee to get them to open up. Don’t look at this as just chit-chat — it’s actually relationship-building.

One-on-one call in Pumble, a business messaging and video conferencing app
One-on-one call in Pumble, a business messaging and video conferencing app

Tip #2: Take some notes about what’s going on in your employees’ personal lives — it shows your genuine interest and care. 

💡 Pumble Pro Tip 

If you’re eager to find out more about Pumble, a free team chat and communication software for business messaging and how it can support effective communication in a remote work environment, you can do so here:

Now that we know that empathetic leadership is more important than ever before, let’s explore the ways in which you can become an empathetic leader or improve your existing leadership skills. 

Our contributors believe that it all starts with empathy

Why is empathy such an important skill for leaders?

According to Kristen Donnelly, Ph.D., Founder of Abbey Research, her company advocates for inclusivity and curiosity — so that everyone can have a richer and fuller life. 

Within that framework, they define empathy as “the consistent intentional decision to choose understanding over assumptions.”

She believes that we should all strive for empathy on all levels possible:

Kristen Donnelly - Ph.D., Founder of Abbey Research

“Empathy is both a completely personal thing that has to be committed to on an individual level and a standard that a corporation can set.”

In addition to Donnelly’s point of view, Wilkes believes the importance of empathy is three-fold.

First, empathy helps build better relationships with team members:  

Brandon Wilkes - Marketing Manager at The Big Phone Store

“When team members feel understood and valued, they’re more likely to be engaged and motivated.”

Empathy also allows leaders to better understand and respond to the needs of their team members: 

Brandon Wilkes - Marketing Manager at The Big Phone Store

“By taking the time to understand how someone is feeling, leaders can provide the support and guidance that team members need to be successful.”

Moreover, empathy is a key ingredient in creating a positive work environment: 

Brandon Wilkes - Marketing Manager at The Big Phone Store

“When leaders show empathy, it sets the tone for the entire team. Employees feel valued and respected, and they’re more likely to be productive and happy in their work.”

In addition, Puranik says that leaders have to stand in the gap and assume the role of a bridge. She explains this further: 

Rani Puranik - Executive VP and Global CFO at Worldwide Oilfield Machine

“As a bridge, we as leaders, are connecting the current state to what we know the potential could be; we offer that platform and path. This allows us to succeed in whichever department or position we are in. The sky’s the limit.”

— 

Besides empathy, what other qualities should an empathetic leader possess? 

Let’s dive deeper into that now. 

What are the qualities of an empathetic leader?

Although empathy is an essential part of being an empathetic leader, it’s not the only quality that empathetic leaders are made of. 

Empathic leadership is also based on: 

  • Compassion,
  • Trustworthiness,
  • Self-awareness,
  • Honesty,
  • Strength, 
  • Communication,
  • Active listening,
  • Flexibility, 
  • A curious mindset, and
  • Vulnerability.   

#1: Compassion 

For many, empathy and compassion boil down to the same thing. 

But, according to Heather Younger, an expert on leadership and the author of “The Art of Caring Leadership”, there’s a difference between the two. 

In one Franklin Covey podcast episode, she explained this thoroughly: 

“Empathy and compassion are not the same things. Empathy is the sensing of another person, stepping in their shoes, seeking to understand where they are at, and feeling some of their feelings, if you can. Compassion is the action you take after you sense that.” 

She believes that it’s precisely the compassionate actions that make the person feel cared for: 

“Empathy plus compassion is like an elixir that creates this sense of care that nothing else can.” 

For Younger, caring leadership translates to showing care and kindness for the people you lead consistently and in very specific ways. 

In her book, she highlights specific structures, behaviors, and tactics that can help leaders express care for their employees on a daily basis.

#2: Trustworthiness 

An empathic leader is also a trustworthy one. 

Trustworthiness is reflected in the ability to make people trust you and feel comfortable and safe enough to share their deepest fears and desires with you. 

Wilkes explains what this means in practice: 

Brandon Wilkes - Marketing Manager at The Big Phone Store

“Empathic leaders are those who can put themselves in other people’s shoes and understand and share their feelings. They are good at reading people and are attuned to the emotional currents running through their team or organization. 

Empathic leaders create a feeling of safety and trust and people feel comfortable confiding in them. They are also able to see both sides of every issue and make decisions that take everyone’s needs into account.”

What’s more, Puranik believes that trust is fundamental to cultivating empathy in any organization. She explains: 

Rani Puranik - Executive VP and Global CFO at Worldwide Oilfield Machine

“Empathetic leadership starts by respecting others and facing challenges with very complex issues from a positive mindset. I refer to A. A Milne, one of my favorite authors who wrote Winnie the Pooh. In one of the dialogues, Winnie says to Tiger — ‘Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.’ This is relevant in terms of leadership styles and has been mine for the last 15 years.”

Overall, building trust and creating a trusting work environment is what an empathetic leader should always aim for. 

#3: Self-awareness 

Another important trait of empathetic leaders is self-awareness. 

For Unger, it’s where it all starts: 

Marie Unger - CEO of Emergenetics International

“It’s essential that leaders understand their strengths, their blind spots, and where their assumptions are coming from. Then, they can begin to appreciate differences in others. Mindfulness activities, as well as psychometric assessments, can support self-understanding.”

Furthermore, Volpe believes that self-aware leaders are the ones who are capable of bringing about important changes in the workplace, too. 

He clarified this further: 

Rob Volpe - the CEO at Ignite 360

“It’s difficult to dismantle judgment and follow the other 5 Steps to Empathy if you aren’t able to have self-awareness of your own behavior and thoughts.”

For Crowder, building awareness is something a leader should never stop doing. But she feels there’s a shortage of such leaders.

She explains: 

Kim Crowder - Founder and CEO at Kim Crowder Consulting

“Leaders should be able to recognize and acknowledge one’s own privileges and work to remove barriers for others to receive those same privileges. Also, they should know that building this awareness will never be completed. It is a lifetime’s worth of work to unlearn and relearn. Leaders who are willing to see this as a marathon are rare and necessary.”

#4: Honesty 

Empathy and compassion allow leaders to see things from their perspective and do whatever they need to do. 

Honesty and transparency allow them to build more open relationships with their workers, always sharing with them what’s going on in the company and including them in important decision-making. 

This way, they can build better, more human-centered company cultures. Shaikh explains this a bit further:

Art Shaikh - Founder and CEO of CircleIt

“Empathetic leaders listen to their team and customers and then respond in a way that addresses their concerns. Empathetic leaders are proactive and develop a culture that will display the kind of human decency that is often missing at the corporate level. Empathetic leaders also tend to be open and honest, making sure that their team is aware of everything that is going on and why decisions are made.”

#5: Strength 

In one BBC News video, Jacinda Ardern, PM of New Zealand, talked about strength as another key component of empathetic leadership. 

She calls people out for not practicing enough kindness, empathy, and compassion in communication and leadership, emphasizing that being empathetic takes courage and strength.

Even though she has been called out for being too empathetic, she stands behind her convictions and beliefs — she keeps practicing empathy and compassion as a leader. 

So, it’s not always easy to practice empathy — but it’s precisely your strength and courage to always act with it that makes a difference. 

#6: Communication 

Although communication should by default be effective in the workplace, the latest workplace communication statistics show that companies still lose a lot of money due to poor communication. 

Empathetic leadership goes hand in hand with excellent communication skills. There’s nothing that facilitates understanding better than effective communication

Additionally, Volpe believes that leaders should reflect empathy in the language and phrases they usually use. 

He recommends:

Rob Volpe - the CEO at Ignite 360

“For empathic leadership to be effective, empathy needs to be reflected back in language, as well as actions. Simple phrases such as ‘I understand where you are coming from or ‘I can see your point of view’ coupled with a statement reflecting that other perspective and how it is informing the decision being made go a long way to reflecting empathy.”

Fine-tuning your communication skills will benefit not only your employees but also support you on your way to becoming a more empathetic leader. 

💡 Pumble Pro Tip 

If you need help improving your leadership communication, we bring you actionable strategies and tips: 

#7: Active listening 

Any good communicator should be able to listen actively to those around them, not just people in leading positions. Volpe explains: 

Rob Volpe - the CEO at Ignite 360

“There’s wisdom in the expression ‘we learn more from listening than talking.’ The empathic leader should be a good listener and is focused on the person they are listening to.”

Likewise, Unger believes that active listening is the key part of being an empathic leader: 

Marie Unger - CEO of Emergenetics International

“Some of the defining characteristics of an empathetic leader include their ability to actively listen to the ideas and opinions of others, a desire to seek understanding before responding or reacting, and their compassion for the needs and interests of their team members.”

In essence, active listening is a learnable and practicable skill. 

And, empathetic leadership should always translate to listening first and speaking second — giving the employee undivided attention and recognition

#8: Flexibility 

For most empathetic leaders, being able to quickly evaluate and adapt to the situation, the people they’re talking with, and the atmosphere of the conversation is a particularly vital skill. 

This speaks volumes of a leader’s flexibility — another important leadership quality. 

However, don’t mistake flexibility for something else. 

Flexibility isn’t about bending your own beliefs and values and changing your decisions to make someone else feel good. It’s about standing your ground while accounting for another person’s beliefs, values, ideas, emotions, etc. 

 This goes without saying with empathetic leaders and allows them to: 

  • Create a supportive environment for idea-sharing and decision-making. 
  • Foster transparency and accountability
  • Promote a culture of diversity, inclusion, and equity. 
  • Cultivate innovation and creativity among employees. 
  • Help their employees express their ideas and opinions freely and openly. 

#9: A curious mindset 

Joanna Coles, a famous American journalist, said: 

“As long as you’re interested in people and things, that curiosity propels you forward.”

The same is true for those who are trying to build an empathetic leadership style. 

Donnelly believes curiosity to be the foundation for cultivating empathy: 

Kristen Donnelly - Ph.D., Founder of Abbey Research

“Curiosity is a superpower and we should use it as such. You notice that one of your employees is a bit ‘off’ — ask them why instead of brushing it off. Start disciplinary meetings with ‘Can you tell me what happened?’ instead of ‘Why are you so stupid? No one uses this one chair in the break room? Double check it’s not broken.’ Things like this.”

Volpe finds it essential for leaders to be curious about the people they are in their surroundings: 

Rob Volpe - the CEO at Ignite 360

“An empathic leader has to be curious about the humans involved in their organization — both employees, customers, and partners.”

Ultimately, Unger thinks that curiosity is another great way to cultivate empathy: 

Marie Unger - CEO of Emergenetics International

“Making a point to embrace curiosity is another effective way to build empathy. Ask for others’ inputs on projects or decisions, and follow up with questions to learn more about why they are making certain recommendations. By proactively seeking out different perspectives and taking an interest in differing opinions, leaders can begin to appreciate the value of cognitive diversity.”

In fact, for the curious minds, Donnelly’s company has created a quiz that would give organizations a quick metric of how they’re doing with empathy and how they can improve on that.

#10: Vulnerability 

One of my favorite definitions of trust is the one by Charles Feltman, an expert on trust and a leadership coach. He defines trust as “choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.”

With that in mind, we can conclude that vulnerability is essential for building trust between people — in this case between a leader and their employees. 

Yet, being vulnerable seems to be one of the most difficult parts of leadership. Here are Thean’s two cents on vulnerability and trust: 

Patrick Thean - CEO of Rhythm Systems

“The difficult part of empathy is one must first be willing to be vulnerable and willing to share oneself in an authentic way. Vulnerability builds trust. Without trust, it is impossible to gain learning about the other person to be empathetic.”

— 

Hopefully, knowing the qualities of empathetic leaders will help you improve them easier.

Yet, to help you put everything into perspective, let’s take a look at a few real-life empathetic leadership examples. 

What makes a true empathetic leader?

Famous empathetic leaders: Examples 

We always say that empathy is our ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see things from their perspective.

This is precisely what these people did — consciously put themselves into the shoes of others so that they could see where they were coming from and do something to stir positive changes and progress. 

I’ll mention three examples of empathetic leaders:

  1. Mahatma Gandhi, 
  2. Jacinda Ardern, and 
  3. Satya Nadella. 

#1 Mahatma Gandhi — Indian lawyer, activist, and politician 

Mahatma Gandhi — Indian lawyer, activist, and politician

“Sympathy is what you have for someone after they die, pity you have for someone when they don’t have a date to the biggest dance of the year. Empathy is what I do to you when you judge me. Envy is having pity on yourself. Can you discern the rest for yourself?”

The essence of Gandhi’s leadership style is reflected in his commitment to freeing the Indian people from British rule and his ability to lead that struggle without personal interest. His only motivation for doing this was to help the people of his country and ensure its independence. 

By putting people and their troubles first, Gandhi was seen as a trustworthy and charismatic leader — he was famous for acting with peaceful resistance and steering clear of violence.

#2 Jacinda Ardern — The youngest female PM of New Zealand 

Jacinda Ardern — The youngest female PM of New Zealand

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

Jacinda Ardern represents a new generation of leaders — she stands for strength, empathy, and courage in everything she does. 

She’s managed to effectively handle:

  • The COVID-19 crisis. 
  • The Christchurch Massacre. 

She is the first New Zealand PM to be pregnant in office — which speaks volumes of her stance on motherhood and business. She believes that role modeling motherhood and leadership can help normalize the role of working mothers and support them in their decisions to balance being moms and building their careers.  

Despite admitting to reaching decisions based on emotions or morals, Ardern doesn’t find this to be a sign of weakness. On the contrary, she’s a firm believer in using emotions for better decision-making.

#3 Satya Nadella — The CEO of Microsoft

Satya Nadella — The CEO of Microsoft

“From her [Anu, his wife], I have learned that when I infuse empathy into my everyday actions, it is powerful, whether they be in my role as a father or as a CEO.”

Satya Nadella’s leadership style has greatly been shaped by his personal experiences — having and losing a child with a disability. Luckily for many users, including those with disabilities, Nadella has made it his mission “to empower every person and every organization to achieve more.”

While he’s mostly praised for torpedoing Microsoft into success, Nadella still prioritizes transparency and consistency in communication with his employees. 

Moreover, as a people-oriented leader, Nadella is the embodiment of empathy. He’s known to always grant his employees a second chance — an opportunity to re-think, re-group, and do over.

Now, although empathy should be our top priority in life, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that it can be hard for us to always strive for it and practice it.

Empathy comes with a few downsides, too. 

Let’s see what they are. 

What are the downsides of being an empathetic leader? 

Considering that empathy assumes investing a lot of your time, energy, and emotions into your relationships with others, it’s expected that you can run into some bumps in the road, too. 

According to Volpe, one common misconception about being empathetic is that you have to give up your own point of view to see the point of view of someone else. 

I agree with him when he says that’s not the case:  

Rob Volpe - the CEO at Ignite 360

“Empathy is about making room in your head that there are different ways of viewing the world and acting on those views. It’s up to all of us to be curious to understand how another is seeing a situation, and trying to see things from their perspective. Then, you marry it up with your own, as another data point in your decision-making, in order to make an informed decision.”

Furthermore, in one article that tackles the downsides of empathy, Graham Johnston explains the downside of always approaching communication with empathy: 

“Empathy is not a universally positive emotional response. Intimate understanding of another’s experience can be used to manipulate and hurt them. As Bloom notes in his book “Against Empathy”, an empathic response can lead to in-group bias, where we value more those who look, sound, and act more like us.”  

Although he wrote from the perspective of psychotherapy and therapist burnout, the same thing can happen with leaders. 

Empathy can push leaders into emotional and mental burnout, so being aware of it and knowing where to draw a line can be one way of avoiding the downsides and using empathy to a mutually beneficial advantage. 

9 Tips for becoming a more empathetic leader

You’ve probably wondered if empathy is an innate characteristic or a learnable skill. 

I can assure you that you can fine-tune your empathetic skills with consistency and effort. 

There are concrete and specific ways in which you can work your way through empathetic leadership. 

We will list and elaborate on some of them. Check out our 9 tips below. 

Tip #1: Nurture your emotional intelligence

In one PsychologyToday article, emotional intelligence is defined as “our ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.” 

Yet, we can say that emotional intelligence encompasses a few different skills: 

  • The ability to identify and name your own emotions,
  • The ability to harness your emotions and use them when thinking and solving problems, and 
  • The ability to manage emotions — when necessary, regulating both your own emotions and those of the other person. 

Why is this important? 

Emotional intelligence can help you develop healthy responses in communication and help others do the same, especially if you find yourself in a difficult conversation

So, don’t be afraid of the emotions you’re feeling — embrace them, identify them, and take them by the hand. 

Tip #2: Take care of your mental and emotional state 

When I think about it, empathetic leadership is a lot like parenting. 

Let’s compare the two.

The work that leaders and parents do can be very exhausting. 

Both leadership and parenting can drain you mentally and emotionally. 

That’s why leaders (and parents) should be aware of the hard work they are doing and take steps to prioritize their mental and emotional well-being. 

Empathetic leaders Parents
Are in charge of… Taking care of and always supporting their employees. Taking care of and always supporting their children. 
Should role model…Desired behavior at work.Desired behavior at home. 
Teach and role model…Effective communication at work. Effective communication at home. 
Set and reinforce boundaries…For their employees in the workplace.For their children at home. 
Take responsibility…For everyone’s actions in the workplace.For their kids’ actions at home. 
Do… What they say they would do. What they say they would do. 
Praise…. Their employees for doing a great job at work. Their children for something they do well at home. 
Foster…Collaboration among employees to ensure they do their best. Collaboration among children to make sure their children do their best. 
Help… Cultivate a positive workplace atmosphere and strong relationships among employees. Cultivate a positive atmosphere at home and strong relationships among siblings. 

In essence, when you prioritize and take good care of your mental and emotional state, you’ll be able to be there for your employees and provide them with the support they need. 

You can designate time to do things that you enjoy and that make you feel good about yourself — exercising, more time with family, relaxing and watching movies, etc. 

Happy leaders = happy employees, don’t forget that. 

Tip #3: Focus on personal growth

Empathetic leaders know that investing in their personal development translates to being better able to deliver for others — especially in the workplace context.

Crowder suggests the following: 

Kim Crowder - Founder and CEO at Kim Crowder Consulting

“Focus on personal growth through not only learning about building equity but also learning what that means in relation to the workplace culture and environment. It is more than being kind. It is understanding the ways this plays out in hiring, salary, job performance reviews, processes, systems, and daily practices. The more leaders are willing to grow in this area, the better the environment becomes for everyone.”

Work on yourself whenever you get the chance! 

Tip #4: Embrace overcommunication 

One thing you can’t get enough of in the workplace is communication. 

Besides being the very core of employee engagement, communication is also a powerful tool for building your leadership style. 

Moreover, you should aim for overcommunication in the workplace if you want to ensure clarity and provide your employees with purpose. 

What can this mean in practice? 

Some of the ways for leaders to embrace overcommunication can include:

  • Setting up some ground rules for healthy communication in the workplace. 
  • Engaging in short, yet frequent meetings with your employees. 
  • Making your 1:1 meetings with employees more casual and fun.
  • Using different channels of communication to keep it interesting and diverse. 
  • Addressing potential issues quickly and sharing unpleasant news as quickly as pleasant ones. 

One important takeaway about overcommunication: Don’t confuse it with information overload — i.e. sharing too much irrelevant and poorly timed information among team members within an organization.

Tip #5: Adopt a learning mindset 

As an empathetic leader, you should get used to always having to learn something new. 

How can adopting a learning mindset help you showcase empathy in the workplace? 

It will allow you to: 

  • Think outside the box and role model a learning approach to work. 
  • Listen to what your employees have to bring to the table and implement the ideas that best support innovation in the workplace. 
  • Participate in brainstorming sessions and various project discussions that can birth fresh and original ideas and solutions. 
  • See other people’s perspectives on certain workplace issues that will lead to more creative decision-making. 
  • Encourage continuous information-sharing and support employees’ further development and growth.

The way Crowder sees it, empathetic leaders should also focus more on learning from those who aren’t usually perceived as leaders. 

Being a fierce advocate for DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) in the workplace, for her, this learning part translates to focusing more on marginalized groups: 

Kim Crowder - Founder and CEO at Kim Crowder Consulting

“Be willing to learn from those who are not seen as leaders regularly. Women of Color are the group that is least seen in CEO and executive positions. Study a leader who is a woman that is part of a racialized group and then look for opportunities to move this group forward within your organization.” 

The quicker you accept that learning should come first, the easier it will be to give everyone a voice and provide them with more opportunities to grow. The greatest part of this is that you get to grow with your employees, too. 

Tip #6: Get used to asking good questions 

For Donnelly, getting into the habit of asking questions is of utmost importance for empathetic leaders. 

She explains: 

Kristen Donnelly - Ph.D., Founder of Abbey Research

“Our first and most basic tip for building an empathetic leadership style is to get used to asking questions. Don’t assume that you know how everyone wants feedback, handles fluorescent lights, or feels about remote work. Ask them.”

You can use Pumble to make notes to yourself about asking good questions
You can use Pumble to make notes to yourself about asking good questions

Donnelly elaborates why asking questions is important and how it supports empathetic leaders: 

Kristen Donnelly - Ph.D., Founder of Abbey Research

“This achieves several things: it reminds them that you view them as humans and not interchangeable cogs in a profit machine, it affirms their voice and value in your organization, and it starts a conversation. 

Can you acquiesce to every request? 

Of course not, but most humans don’t expect you to. They just expect you to treat them like humans.“

By creating a company culture that supports asking questions, you can restore the human element in your organization and allow your employees to become more comfortable with asking important questions, too. 

It’s what fosters innovation and progress in the world of business.

💡 Pumble Pro Tip 

Have you ever had to ask a tough question at work? If you have, you know how stressful it can be. If you haven’t, you can check out our blog post that tackles the topic: 

Tip #7: Acknowledge individual contribution 

Although leaders might consider their “duty” to teach whatever they can to their employees, in today’s modern business world, this might not be the case. 

Thanks to the increasing number of multigenerational and cross-cultural workplaces, there’s a lot of what employees can bring to the table — experience, knowledge, insights, ideas, etc. 

An empathetic leader often recognizes that and isn’t focused on being the sole contributor — instead, they allow others to take over in an attempt to cultivate a more collaborative atmosphere and encourage a DEI approach in the workplace. 

Puranik believes leaders have to completely shut down their competitiveness and embrace individual contributions to bring more value and diversity: 

Rani Puranik - Executive VP and Global CFO at Worldwide Oilfield Machine

“Leaders can improve their empathetic leadership skills by not seeing each other from a competitive angle, especially when they have more experience because every person has something valuable to contribute.”

Accepting the fact that different people will have different ideas and different approaches to work is a great step forward for the leader. 

In Pumble, you can use the #general channel to praise your employees for their achievements
In Pumble, you can use the #general channel to praise your employees for their achievements

Crowder also believes that knowing how to praise your teammates and open the right doors for them is what helps build better and more inclusive organizations: 

Kim Crowder - Founder and CEO at Kim Crowder Consulting

“Team members have expectations around how they want to be treated, valued, and celebrated in the workplace, as they should. They also have options to work elsewhere. Leaders who understand their role in opening doors for those with historically ignored backgrounds build better teams and overall organizations.”

💡 Pumble Pro Tip 

Collaboration is an essential part of every thriving workplace and a skill leaders should know to cultivate in the workplace. Read more about how to achieve it here: 

Tip #8: Encourage constructive feedback practices 

According to the latest workplace communication statistics, managers dislike giving feedback and employees like receiving feedback. 

The problem might lie in the fact that:

  • Most leaders haven’t been properly trained to hold constructive feedback sessions, and
  • Most employees are reluctant to ask managers for feedback for various reasons. 

It’s reassuring that 72% of employees feel their performance would improve if their managers provided corrective aka “negative” feedback. 

But, it also shows us that empathetic leaders should invest more time and energy into creating a psychologically safe space for their employees and encourage them to proactively seek meaningful feedback and use it to their advantage. 

💡 Pumble Pro Tip 

Remote and hybrid work settings brought about many changes, including the way companies conduct their performance reviews and interviews. See what’s changed and how to keep up: 

Tip #9: Get to know your employees 

Workplace communication should remain professional and formal to some extent — but, let’s remember that most of us are working in remote and hybrid work environments. 

This means that we’re often devoid of casual small talk, get-togethers after work, and water cooler situations. 

This also means that we have fewer opportunities to meet our employees and teammates outside of work and get to know them better. 

However, leaders should make an effort and try to recreate these situations over the screen and during their regular one-on-ones or virtual group meetings.

On the plus side, you can always chit-chat with your employees via your employee communication app and get comfortable with talking about non-work-related stuff — movie preferences, favorite food, or anything else for that matter.  

#movies channel in Pumble can help learn more about your employees’ movie preferences
#movies channel in Pumble can help learn more about your employees’ movie preferences

When you invest in informal two-way communication at work, you’re actually promoting healthy communication boundaries in your team and helping them feel more comfortable even when working remotely.

Once you get past the initial awkwardness, you’ll see that getting to know your employees can be done even over the screen. 

💡 Pumble Pro Tip

If you need help creating a more comfortable atmosphere in your virtual meetings, try to use some of our icebreaker questions. We’ve got 150 of them! 

In conclusion: Building an empathetic leadership style is hard but worth the effort

If you thought that establishing yourself as an empathetic leader would be easy, you were wrong. 

It will probably be one of the hardest things you’ll do for yourself (and for others) — but also the most rewarding, too. 

The benefits of cultivating empathy in the workplace are manyfold as empathy: 

  • Fosters a sense of belonging and purpose. 
  • Keeps the employees motivated and empowered to do their best. 
  • Creates a sense of care and trust between you and your employees. 
  • Pushes leaders to become better listeners and problem-solvers. 
  • Helps boost employee morale, productivity, and efficiency. 
  • Supports employees’ overall happiness and well-being. 
  • Moves the company forward and drives better outcomes. 

You should strive for acting with empathy in every situation possible, just remember to protect yourself along the way. Leaders often forget that they, too, can fall victim to emotional overload and burnout. 

Acting with empathy and compassion is beneficial for everyone only if it’s beneficial to everyone involved. 

✉️ What is your experience with empathetic leadership? Do you think that empathy can be learned and perfected like every other skill? Do you find it hard to showcase empathy in the workplace? Share your experience and insights at blogfeedback@pumble.com and we may include your answers in this or future posts. And if you liked this blog post and found it useful, share it with someone you think would also benefit from it.

Author: AnjaBojic

Anja is a Communication researcher and author at Pumble. When she’s not researching and writing for the Pumble blog, you can find her networking with other working moms, advocating mental health at work, and trying to be a present and engaged parent.

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