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Why We Need Empathetic Leadership More than Ever

Empathetic leadership is a sign of a strong and healthy organization. But why does it matter so much and how to develop it in the workplace?

The Euro Cup 2020/2021 has long passed. But one thing is still etched in my memory very clearly until today—it is the day when Christian Eriksen, Denmark’s midfielder, collapsed on the field from a heart attack during a match against Finland. The scene was absolutely traumatizing, but there was something special that emerged from the horror—it was Simon Kjær’s, Denmark’s team captain, leadership. Kjær was one of the first ones to get to Eriksen, performing CPR, and clearing Eriksen’s airways even before the medics arrived. He also consoled Eriksen’s visibly distressed partner who ran to the field and made sure all the other team members encircled Eriksen to protect his privacy while he was being treated by the paramedics.

Kjær showed us that true leaders are those who genuinely care for others, are there to support their people, and are ready to be the rock when the storm hits. He showed empathy in difficult moments. To me, he was the hero of the match, despite Denmark losing to Finland that night.

Showing empathy to others is not a sign of weakness, in fact, it is a sign of strength. Unfortunately, many people forget about this concept as they climb up the ranks—and this is the main problem in many organizations where many bosses, managers, and even executive leaders often lack in the empathy department. In this shifting reality where many uncertainties entangle our workplace and personal lives altogether, empathetical leadership is what organizations need from now onwards.

What is an empathetic leadership style?

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another person’s position and imagine how that person feels and acts the way that person does. It is the ability to understand others’ needs and be sensitive to their surroundings. Empathetic leadership is where leaders…

  • Are aware of others’ feelings and thoughts—empathetic leaders put genuine interests in others’ feelings and do not do things that are hurtful to others. They lead while considering other’s experiences and thoughts.
  • Have a tough time not caring about others—like Kjær’s story above, empathetic leaders know what their people need (Eriksen needed medical help and privacy, Eriksen’s partner needed comfort and assurance) and provide them their utmost support. So, whether their team members are sick, have just lost a beloved one, or are emotionally exhausted from overwork, empathetic leaders go to great lengths to make sure they are fine and take their well-deserved rest.
  • Resolve conflict quickly and courageously—conflict is a no-no in empathetic leaders’ dictionaries. So, when there is tension happening among team members, they will try to resolve it quickly and ensure all parties are pacified.
  • Listen well—empathetic leaders listen to their people when they raise an issue or pitch an idea. They take their people seriously and stay away from victim-blaming.
  • Build trust and connection—being kind to others and creating connections and networks based on trust is another fundamental quality of empathetic leaders. They also promote good relationships among team members and with others.
  • Motivate and empower their people—understanding what their people aspire to be and what they need to achieve their success is a sign of empathetic leaders. They are the enablers who spend time to make sure their people thrive.
  • Make others feel safe, belonged, and included—empathetic leaders interact with others and leave them feeling genuinely cared for and included in the conversations. They treat others equally and make them feel they are aboard the same ship with the same mission.
  • Put their people first above profits—this one is the most difficult. When you ask most leaders if it is worth it to gain a few million dollars profits at the cost of your employee’s well-being, most will say “no” superficially. But how many of them truly do what they preach? Putting people first above profits does not mean you do not make a profit at all, and people can do whatever they want. The idea behind this is to ensure there is a balance between your employees’ physical and mental health, well-being, and profits—you cannot pay people a rock-bottom minimum salary and expect them to work 60 hours a week.

Showing empathy to others is not a sign of weakness, in fact, it is a sign of strength.

Why empathetic leadership matters at the workplace

What happens when you do not have empathetic leaders in your organization is a disconnection between you and your people. People will not trust you enough to share their issues or ideas for they fear they are not listened to. When empathetic leadership is present, on the other hand, people will feel safe, motivated, and comfortable with themselves. They also feel heard and valued. This will create positivity and a sense of team spirit, which in turn will increase productivity.

How to be empathetic in the workplace?

Some people are naturally born empathetic leaders. But empathy is also a skill to learn. Leaders do not wear titles. You do not have to be a manager or an executive team member to be a leader and an empathetic leader. Everyone should apply an empathetic leadership style in what they do. You can start from a small step by recognizing that you are working with people who have feelings and thoughts, who have family and friends behind the computer screen, who also want to enjoy their work and private lives just like you.

Sometimes when we are too focused on the tasks and goals that we want to achieve, we tend to forget the human aspect of an organization. When your co-worker is late for a meeting, your subordinate does not deliver what he/ she promises, or when things go awry in a project—think of the human behind it all. Your co-worker might have a problem with his computer before the meeting, your subordinate might be struggling to take care of a sick family member, someone in the project might be fighting an illness. Being kind and understanding is the key to empathetic leadership and a successful organization, and now is time for empathetic leaders to take over the steering wheel in the organization.

Check out our other insights and tips for successful leadership and how we can help you develop engaging leaders of the future.

headshot sabrina wijaya


Sabrina Wijaya

Sabrina has many years of experience in marketing communication and has worked on various projects revolving around content strategy, digital marketing consultancy, social media management, and SEO copywriting. She holds a master's degree in Digital Marketing from the University of Amsterdam. She brings her expertise to develop SHL's digital content and brand strategy globally. She is enthusiastic about people, content creation, and organizational culture.

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