5 Tips to Become an Empathetic & Understanding Leader

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Do you want to be in a strong position to understand your people, build their trust and help to create meaningful and relevant action plans to improve culture and profits? Then you must focus on empathy!


Empathy is a key skill for progressive leaders who want to understand what makes their people tick. Empathetic leaders place makes huge efforts to recognise contribution and effort in order to ensure their people feel valued and understood.


We (The Happiness Index) complied two global studies; one into the drivers of workplace happiness and the other into employee NPS (eNPS) and the drivers of employee loyalty… and guess what? Feeling recognised/valued came out at number one in both studies! Meaning empathy is an essential requirement for employees and therefore, an essential leadership skill.



Here’s what else we found:

Does empathy affect leadership performance?


Empathy massively impacts your ability to motivate and empower your people. If you can’t place yourself in their shoes and understand pain points, frustrations and motivations – then how can you expect to motivate them to be their best at work?


But don’t just take my word for it.


According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “Empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.”


When leaders show empathy, it often has a domino effect and permeates throughout the business. This creates a culture of authenticity, trust and recognition.  All of which will help create working environments where people are happy, motivated and high-performing.


Empathy is a learnable skill


Empathy is a skill. All skills can be learned, improved and developed. It’s as simple as that. All it takes is patience and a genuine interest and desire to listen to your people and understand where they’re coming from. With patience, time and coaching anyone can improve their empathy skills exponentially. 


shapiro learned empathy leadership quote 2002


Some people will naturally exude empathy and demonstrate recognition and understanding with ease. They will have an advantage when it comes to being a great motivator or manager… but that shouldn’t deter you from learning!


Empathy can be improved by coaching or training – but a more effective way is getting your hands dirty and meeting everyone, understanding their roles and learning every part of the business inside out. Only then will you truly be able to recognise exceptional input and understand frustrations. This will ensure your people view you as an authentic and trustworthy leader – leading to better productivity and advocacy.


Related video: 5 Ways to Boost EQ



Here are some strategies to help you demonstrate understanding, recognition and empathy:


1. Be Authentic

Empathy can’t be forced. If you’re disinterested in your people and their feelings, then it will be very apparent to them. The only way you can truly win their trust is to be authentic. 


Make efforts to form meaningful relationships with your people based on trust and transparency. You don’t always have to go with their suggestions, but you must demonstrate you understand where they’re coming from and provide relevant reasons why you will/won’t be actioning their feedback.


Never hide your emotions. If you’re happy, show it. If you’re angry, show it. You get the picture! These are all human traits that make you relatable and approachable.  


2. Recognise different perspectives

If you want to understand the sentiment of your business, then try to recognise where people are coming from. You may not agree (or even like) what they’re saying – but you must accept that other perspectives should be taken seriously.


Many business leaders assume their own ideas are shared by everyone and are reflected throughout the business. This is simply not the case.  Failing to listen to your employees and customers will usually lead to poor business decisions and disengaged stakeholders at all levels.


3. Be self-aware & compassionate

It’s hard to relate to your people and understand their views. You will rarely be able to fully understand their experiences and journeys – so you must try to connect with the emotion they are displaying.


Find out how they’re feeling and then compare it to when you felt similar. For example, “How did I feel when my boss ignored me?” “Would I like performing that task?” This will help you to develop a strong awareness of what is being said and felt by your people. It will also help you to be more compassionate and tuned into people’s mood changes.



4. Ask, listen, reflect


The best way to understand how someone is feeling is to ask them.


Frustratingly this approach is widely overlooked. This leads to leadership teams being out-of-touch with their staff and making assumptions instead of discovering what would really help people and make cultural improvements.

sharon hull quote listening leadership advice

Put your biases and views to one side and discover the sentiment of your business. You can then start to acknowledge people and communicate the plans you are implementing off the back of people’s answers. This will establish you as a leader who understands their people and cares. This will do wonders for staff empowerment, motivation and retention!


5. Implement people analytics

You probably don’t have the time to speak to everyone daily and empathise with their feelings and concerns. Most leaders don’t either!


By sending out employee engagement or happiness surveys, you can gather real-time feedback from your people, so you can understand how everyone is feeling presently. You can then aggregate it to help you address the main business concerns and focus areas.  


This will help you to easily create empathetic and meaningful action plans to boost culture, engagement and all-round workplace happiness!


Be an empathetic leader


When you learn to understand your people better, you will start to have a workforce that trusts you and feels empowered to help the business achieve its goals.


Being more empathetic is one of the most effective skills a business leader can learn. Especially in today’s working climate where “wandering eyes” looking for new opportunity is rife! Empathetic leaders are experts at building and maintaining relationships which is critical for any successful business leader.



When you're a busy leader, you need clear insights on how you can take your organization from surviving to thriving: 






About the Author

Joe Wedgwood

Chief Storyteller at The Happiness Index – Joe is a published journalist and blogger whose thoughts on work-life balance and organisational culture featured on page one of Google. He has consulted and created comms plans for a company in the FTSE 100 Index and has helped to compile and graphically design global reports on workplace happiness and Employee Net Promoter Scores (eNPS). He previously worked as a Content Manager, Marketing Executive, Language Acquisition Teacher, Journalist & Counsellor for homeless, continued users.


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