The Power of Empathic Leadership

Empathic leadership is one of the most heavily misunderstood approaches in the today’s business world.

What’s evident in the corporate world regarding empathic leadership is

  • It’s the exception – not the rule
  • Individual leaders value and utilise it but there’s little if any consistency within organisations
  • Those that don’t benefit from it’s influence– despite their credible experience and accreditations – heavily misunderstand its potential and power.
  • The psychological/behavioural preferences often shared by senior leaders tends to dismiss empathy and so it remains as something to be scorned or de-prioritised.
  • Often leaders think they are being empathic but are not.
  • Often leaders expect their managers to be empathic but this doesn’t happen because of their lack of role modelling.

Why bother with empathy? (As a leadership influencer)

Before we get to some interesting recent science on the results of applying empathy, why should we bother?

  1. Empathy is the primary tool for positively handling human emotions. How often are humans experiencing feelings and emotions? Every single second. Emotions are like the weather, unpredictable and not something that any human being can fully plan, control, manipulate or choose. Empathic leadership helps restore control and rebalances difficult situations very quickly when emotions bubble under the surface and before bigger problems escalate.
  2. The root of practically all emotions is survival. Our emotional systems are linked to our fight, flight and freeze response, as anger manifests to protect us. Frustration, vulnerability and anxiety act as warnings for upcoming problems. Our customers’ experience these on a regular basis, as do our staffs. Empathy acts as the catalyst to turn unhappy customers into advocates and disillusioned staff the same way.
  3. Staff engagement and high performance can’t happen when staffs are emotionally disregarded. The opposite of an empathic leadership style is emotional disregard implicit within leadership mantras such as ‘just do it’.  This is far more counter productive than most leaders imagine.

Those that favour ‘just do it’, ‘there’s no room for discussion”, “Action not feelings’, ‘logic and facts are all we want’, and ‘I’ve heard what you’ve said BUT that won’t change my mind’ are often unaware to the effects on motivation and morale when feelings are left unheard.

Complaints and escalations occur because some where along the customer journey the customer hasn’t felt heard. They probably will have been listened to but they won’t have felt heard – Two very different things.

Anyone can listen or pretend. Empathy – when genuinely applied – demonstrates to the other their feelings of disappointment, frustration, anxiety, anger and vulnerability are being taken seriously.


Once they hear they are being taken seriously the human brain does a marvellous thing, the emotions (within the amygdala) recede, the logic circuits re-engage and solutions can be agreed and often much quicker. Commitment is created instead of forced compliance.

The majority of time when leaders disregard their staff’s feelings and emotions they act as an instant de-motivator, sending perceptions to their people of

  • I don’t care about you
  • What is important to you is of little relevance to me, the company, the shareholders
  • I am superior because you should be thinking and acting like me
  • You are inferior

I wonder how many leaders have these intentions?

Probably not many, but the truth of our behaviour is not what we intend but how the other person interprets it.

If you’d like to see the destructive power of emotional disregard between humans check out this video. (The same science applies to adult relationships) 

Mistaken beliefs about empathy

There are many of these in the minds of leaders and they include

  • Empathy is weak/fluffy/unnecessary – and therefore prevents results
  • Action and getting on with things is the only way
  • Everyone has to do things they don’t like so just get on with it
  • Being nice doesn’t change behaviour
  • Empathy is about being nice (and not results)

Until we create corporate environments and open minds to explore and dismantle our mistaken beliefs they will always ‘feel’ true and be played-out.

What science says about the power of empathy? – Dismantling the mistaken beliefs

The most common mistaken beliefs about empathy centre upon it being ineffective, not changing behaviour and therefore impeding results.

The recent (March 2016) study* from the department of Psychology, Stanford University, California shows otherwise. In which teachers who followed an empathic leadership style rather than a punitive one dramatically changed the behaviour of students.

The study proved that by adopting empathy rather than telling or punitive interventions they

  • Changed unhelpful behaviours into positive ones and quickly
  • Student motivation was directly changed for the better
  • Halved student suspension rates
  • Students reapplied themselves to what was asked of them and quickly
  • It increased respect for the teachers in the eyes of the students

It was the Teachers’ empathic mindset and language that created behaviour change rather than instruction and discipline.

What does this study have to do with my business?

What we know is that by adopting the same empathic leadership approach in business the following challenges are overcome

  1. Staff quality performance issues are more easily addressed and improved
  2. ‘Us versus Them’ cultures between departments are progressed
  3. Departments and teams who believe they are not a part of the customer experience but are, can be brought on board more easily or performance managed-out
  4. Difficult discussions are held more openly and successfully – Ongoing issues that normally drain a lot of time and energy are resolved
  5. Staffs reactivity and silo mentality can be challenged positively and changed
  6. Disillusionment, low morale and motivation are overcome

So nothing for senior leaders to be interested in then!!!

Why is there a lack of empathic leadership?

If we consult organisations such as Tetramap and Myers Briggs, their years of tracking data show the majority of the world’s senior leaders heavily favour directness, action, results, logic and proof and de-prioritise empathy in favour of emotional disregard.

Its not that leaders with these traits can’t change, learn and benefit from empathy – it’s a learnt skill and mind-set.  Sadly, not enough of them do so.

In turn this helps to stimulate frantic, non-stop working environments in which staffs lurch from one project, deadline, escalation, blame discussion and customer issue to another.

This perpetuates the mistaken myth that there is no time and certainly not enough time for empathic leadership and so the self-fulfilling prophecy is maintained and once again empathy is ignored or dis-counted.

If you would like to learn more about creating both an action and empathic orientated culture – rather than just putting up posters to say you do, contact me at


* Researchers: Jason A. Okonofuaa,1, David Pauneskua, and Gregory M. Waltona Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305


  • Quote-background

    The opposite of an empathic leadership style is emotional disregard. This is far more counter productive than most leaders imagine.

    Glenn Bracey,
    Future Vision Training Ltd,
    30th August 2016


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