Developing Empathy in Leadership

Are you Leading with Empathy and Compassion in the workplace?

Let's face it, relationships can be the most difficult, frustrating and yet fulfilling ways to grow as a leader.  

Most successful workplace relationships include two vital, yet often overlooked skill-sets that are in short supply in busy workplaces where deadlines and achieving goals are all-important.  

These characteristics are essential to successful relationships.  

They develop your emotional awareness of others and in so doing, they inspire those who work with you.

The two characteristics are of course, empathy and compassion.  

Without compassion and empathy, we can push too hard.  Ask too much.  Without understanding the consequences to the other person.

A kind word, a please and thank you often go a long way, but when a leader is under pressure, the softer side of things often go out the window due to frazzled nerves, a lack of sleep and an unbearable weight upon shoulders already overburdened.

Without compassion and empathy, we can push too hard.  Ask too much.  Without understanding the consequences to the other person.

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Contextualising Empathy and Compassion

Think about a time when you were under pressure and instead of getting an encouraging word to help you along, you were told to work harder, faster, better.  

Can you think of one?

  1. How did it feel?  
  2. What was the impact on you?

And now, think of a time when you were under the same pressure and this time you were given that encouraging word and pat on the shoulder to help you along.

  1. How did that feel?  
  2. What was the impact?

The main difference between both these approaches is the inclusion of compassion and empathy.

Let's take a more in-depth look at both characteristics.

What is Empathy?

My definition of empathy is the ability to recognise and acknowledge someone’s feelings, EVEN IF YOU DO NOT AGREE with them.  

Most of us think that empathy is telling the other person you understand how they feel. A large number of you reading this article have gone on training that has taught you this as a technique. 

And yet, in your experience, how well does that comment go down?

Exactly, not too well! 

I am here to tell you that that is absolute nonsense.  When you tell someone you understand how they feel, you raise people’s feelings to boiling point and get them even further off side with you because it feels condescending, fake.

To truly empathise, you recognise and acknowledge the feeling that the other person has either overtly or covertly said to you. 

It is a life skill that once you get it, you will always have. 

Here are a few examples of how this empathy works:

Their words: "I am so disappointed that I have to work late again this week!"

Your empathetic response: "Wow, that sounds really tough!"

Their words: "I think that service guy was a rude So and So.  Ooooh!!! "

Your empathetic response: "You sound mad!"

Empathy is simple to understand, but not easy to do....

Empathy is easy if you can correctly identify the other person's emotional response.  However, making sure you get the right level of emotion is a little trickier.  

In order to do it well, you have to be actively present so you can watch for nuance, listen for tone, feel their experience.

My encouragement to you is that with practice and observation, you will begin to get better at it.  For some extra help, click here to download a list of feeling words I've put together to help you get started.

With practice, you should start to see resistance melting and relationships start to become more solid.

An Important Note

Don’t expect your team to provide you with value and contribution because you pay for it and therefore are entitled to it – even though this may be true.  This approach will only alienate you and create demotivation and resentment in your team.

When you are under pressure, it’s the small things that make a big difference.  

By you taking a deep breath and asking yourself: "How am I feeling right now?" and "How is this impacting on others?" can help you slow down and get back your perspective.

An extra resource:

How would you rate yourself?

Take the empathy quiz here

What is Compassion?

The word compassion means:  a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.(taken from

So, building positive relationships that will grow, requires a compassionate and thoughtful approach.

My favourite story about compassion is the one about the woman who gets onto the 5:00 pm train with two rowdy children.  

She quietly sits down in her chair, not seeming to notice how her two little ones start running up and down on the busy train, calling out to each other noisily and making a nuisance of themselves.

A work-weary commuter watches with growing irritation until eventually he cannot take the noise and exuberance any longer and firmly yet forcefully taps the woman on the shoulder and asks her if she is aware her children are creating a disturbance.

She starts and seemingly comes to attention, almost blindly looking around the train to see where her children are before saying to the man, “Oh, dear, I am so sorry, I have just left the hospital where my husband has just passed away.  I was trying to figure out how I am going to tell the children their Daddy is gone.”  

At which point, the man on the train reaches out no longer with anger and irritation, but with compassion to put his arm around the mourning mother to comfort her.

Being Compassionate Everyday

Compassion is about ensuring you have the right intention in approaching a situation or person.  Often we make assumptions due to our own view of the world and find we are mistaken and then we have to make reparations.  

Try to control your first reaction in order to clarify with the other person before taking action – it will be worth it in the long run.

The Difference between Empathy and Compassion

Empathy = an emotional understanding and heart-felt response to another's circumstances

Compassion = taking action based on your understanding and emotional response for the other person

The skills of using empathy and compassion are a vital part of being emotionally intelligent with others.  You need both to interact in a variety of workplace scenarios.  Leaders who practice empathy allow their people to know they are seen and cared for.  When they add compassion to this mix, they are able to effectively walk alongside this person, ensuring they practically add value to the situation.

An Example of Empathy and Compassion at Work

In my facilitator circle, one of our ladies husbands suffered a seemingly insignificant fall which left him paralysed and unable to care for himself.  He and she were based in different geographical locations and she'd been commuting to and from her based in Brisbane to keep the family together.

Overnight, our friend's life changed dramatically.  She had to remove her daughter from school, sell the house the two of them had been living in and move back to Adelaide where she had been commuting.  It was a huge change.   Our group rallied around this family, sending much love and support from afar as she was now based in a different geographical position to where we were all based and basically living in the hospital so she could be with her husband 24 hours of the day.  

Empathy was a much-needed source of support for our friend in those early days.  

But, there were practical needs that needed our attention and one of our group organised the raising of funds for their sorely changed financial situation and his urgent operations which needed to be taken care of. In addition, she also arranged and co-ordinated a "care package" which consisted of items like books on dealing with this type of situation, vouchers for dinners, a massage and so on, for the family thus enacting compassion in an elegant and practical way.

Empathy and compassion used together are the missing link within many a leaders tool-kit, which with just a little practice can reap powerful rewards.

Extra resource:  Watch this great short talk by Daniel Goleman  which he delivered for the Empathy and Compassion in Society Conference.

Ending Off

My challenge to you today is to take a compassionate approach and be courageous under pressure.  Show your staff, bosses and colleagues that you appreciate them and the work they do.  Listen and really pay attention to the visual cues they share when in conversation with you.

Take the time to notice and acknowledge what you see in those around you.  It doesn't cost anything.  And, in a world of distraction, your attention could make the world of difference to someone's pain and suffering.

Best wishes and I'll,

See you at the top!

Signature Sign Off - Kerry Anne Cassidy

Over To You

  1. What opportunities do you have to employ compassion and empathy in your workplace?
  2. Has using these characteristics ever got you into trouble?  
  3. What stories do you have on this topic - please share them in the comments section below

Developing your empathy and compassion as a leader is critical to your success. The questions above are intended to get you thinking and discussing with others what these concepts truly mean and how this should play out in the work you do in a way that builds closer connection.

If you enjoyed this article and are serious about developing your influence as a leader in the workplace, then the first step is to discover your Signature Leadership Style.

Click the image below to start the Quiz.

Signature Leadership Style

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