4 Tips to Become an Empathetic Leader

Be the leader that your employees respect 

Image via Northeastern University


Showing empathy to your employees isn’t a sign of vulnerability. 

It simply helps you in predicting the impact of your decisions and actions on your key audiences while allowing you to strategize accordingly. In its essence, empathetic leadership entails understanding others' needs and being aware of their feelings and opinions. Unfortunately, it has traditionally been regarded as a soft ability that is undervalued as a performance measure.

An American journalist, Charles M. Blow once said, “One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.” And I couldn’t agree more with that. 

Because now more than ever, your team deserves an empathetic leader who knows what individual people are going through in the midst of the ever-changing upheaval. Making the appropriate administrative and executive decisions is difficult enough in good times, but it becomes far more difficult in the midst of a global pandemic. 

This brings me back to the time when COVID-19 started to go out of control for the second time, in Malaysia and we had to go back to lockdown. When the news was released, nobody was ready. We were all frantically getting things done and I had just moved from another city. Coincidentally, I had a scheduled meeting with my supervisor. However, as she found out what was happening, she immediately canceled the meeting and told me to take two days off so I can get my things sorted out

Small things like being a considerate person will get you the trust and loyalty of your employees. So since then, I started to make it a point to be empathetic - at work and home.  

By the same token, we want to encourage you to be the change that employees are looking for. With that said, here are some tips on how you can be an empathetic leader

1/ Start normalizing it

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For decades, those who are sitting in the managerial seats avoid discussing this matter and they’ve always seen it as a sign of weakness. We get it, you’re gonna say “it’s nothing personal, just business” and many leaders think that task-oriented qualities such as monitoring and planning are more crucial in controlling team members' performance. 

However, the time has changed and it’s about time for us to normalize having empathetic leaders. Start grasping the idea that understanding, caring for, along developing your team is just as vital, if not more. 

So the next time you have a Zoom call with your team, try sharing your own updates. Talk about the good, the bad, the vulnerable -- to give others permission to express themselves too.

2/ Be flexible

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Alright, don’t get too defensive on that yet.

We’re encouraging leaders to be flexible but of course, to a certain extent. Know what’s the limit and stick to that. To lead with flexibility is absolutely crucial in difficult times like this. In a time where we spend most of our time at home, during a crisis that sees no end but still trying to commit to our jobs. 

Although it may not be your job to interfere with your employee’s personal lives, right now, the lines are blurred and we can’t ignore that. Therefore, we encourage you to carve out time. Yes, set a time during the day where they’re allowed to take some time off, so they can attend to the needs of their children. Be it helping their kids with e-learning, checking in on elderly relatives, and, crucially, taking time for self-care. 

No. That will not decrease their productivity, and if anything, watch the efficiency level increase if this were to be implemented. 

3/ Hear them out

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Listen to them but do it with the intention of understanding where they’re coming from. 

Empathetic people pay close attention to what you're saying, placing their full attention on the person in front of them and not being readily distracted by what's on their monitor or smartphone. They spend more time listening than talking and pay attention to the meaning behind what they are trying to convey through any nonverbal indicators. For instance, their tone, tempo of speech, facial expressions, and gestures. 

One tip: Don’t dwell or stay on one negative topic for too long. Instead, encourage open dialogue and then steer the conversation toward constructive solutions.

4/ Get personal

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Yes. Don’t hesitate to take your employees out for lunch, but of course be professional about it. We don’t want you to appear like a creep!

But the point here is, you can’t be fully empathetic if you don’t know someone at a personal level. Simply because one of the most important things you can do as a leader is to get to know the people you lead. Take an employee out to lunch, or form a reading club with two or three other employees. Hold gatherings whose main objective is to discuss issues unrelated to work.

The more you learn about someone's personal life and experiences, the easier it is to empathize with them.

Time to lead with example

Empathy is a leadership skill that permits you to build trusting relationships. It allows you to understand what others are experiencing and thinking by giving you insight into their feelings and thoughts. Empathy, at its core, affects your decision-making by refining your perceptions and instincts.

Don’t be afraid to show the human side of you. You can do that while also being a competent leader to your employees. 

So, it's your turn: what do you think leaders can do to demonstrate more empathy in the workplace? And how much of a difference do you believe this would make in your team's performance in attaining their goals? Please share your ideas at

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