Empathetic Leadership: The Key to Unlocking Growth Potential?

Empathy can be too easily dismissed, but it can play a key role as people increasingly look to leaders who can steer their companies through a rapidly evolving corporate landscape
Diane Nowell
Nov 15, 2023

That empathy currently ranks among the top desired leadership attributes shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that it’s proven to be a powerful driver of business innovation, employee engagement and workplace inclusion. And yet, together with other so-called soft skills, empathy can be too easily dismissed as a feel-good add-on; a nice-to-have personal and professional attribute rather than a strategic imperative.

However, empathy may occupy a more critical role than ever in the coming months and years, as people increasingly look to leaders who can steer their companies through a rapidly evolving corporate landscape, not just acknowledging challenges, but centring them in an approach that’s ethical, responsible and equitable.

Embodying empathy

Liam Bateman, co-founder and MD of marketing and brand strategy agency The Think Tank, believes that a growing shift in employee expectations is responsible, at least in part, for an increased focus on empathetic leadership in forward-thinking organisations.

‘The modern workforce seeks more than just a paycheque; they desire a sense of belonging, support, and a genuine connection with their workplace.

‘When leaders understand and cater to the emotional needs of their team, they foster a strong sense of belonging that differentiates a good business from a great one. It isn’t just a leadership style; it’s a blueprint for building a thriving, inclusive, and motivated culture within any organisation.’

It’s a perspective that isn’t as widely embraced as it deserves to be, though. This 2023 study shows there’s still a considerable disconnect between employees’ desire for a more human approach to leadership and the perception of its value in the workplace.

According to Stuart Cheesman, Client Strategist from workplace culture expert, O.C. Tanner, 41 percent of respondents in a recent global survey felt that their leaders’ expressions of empathy were empty of meaningful deeds.

‘Empathy without action is just a feeling – a bit like sending someone your ‘thoughts’ without offering practical support. For empathy to be effective at work, it needs a supporting action.’

If organisations genuinely want to embed this quality in workplace culture, they must, therefore, encourage and nurture ‘practical empathy’ as a route to identifying, understanding, and actively meeting employee needs.

The human factor

Empathy is one of the most recognisably human traits – something that carries a premium in an era where AI appears to be taking centre stage. In the context of increasing automation, fine-tuning our emotional perception to understand others’ desires, motivations and behaviours more intelligently could be the key to building workplaces that put people first.

Kubair Shirazee is CEO and transformation coach at AgiliTea.

‘We’re all more interconnected – and, conversely, more polarised – than ever before. It is through empathy that we can and must find new ways to connect with people, to create a positive environment that supports people’s wellbeing and motivates them to innovate and be purposefully productive.’

It’s a view shared by Jenni Kässi, Marketing and Communication Director of Executive Education at Aalto University.

‘Empathy can improve well-being at work by creating more positive, meaningful, and communal workplaces. This in turn can improve efficiency and satisfaction at work and the successfulness of the whole organisation.

‘We can replace many other aspects of work with, say, AI tools, but also in the future, we need to be humans to other human beings. Humanity is something that cannot be taken away from us.’

Mark D. Minevich is an AI strategist and author of Our Planet Powered by AI: How We Use Artificial Intelligence to Create a Sustainable Future for Humanity.

‘As emerging technologies like AI take on more analytical tasks, the human skills of emotional intelligence, compassion and collaboration become even more vital for leadership.

‘With empathy-driven leadership balancing AI’s analytical strengths, we can build a world that works for all people and the planet. Saving our shared future requires fusing head and heart – it’s as much about elevating emotional intelligence as it is about optimising algorithms.’

Rebalancing the scales

There’s an ideological contradiction to manage, too: how we weigh workplace wellbeing alongside the pursuit of profit.

It’s a tension that must be resolved as the pressure on employees to drive growth threatens to not only undermine productivity and morale but to further widen the gap between an organisation’s workforce and its corporate vision.

Mimi Nicklin is the founder of Empathy Everywhere, host of The MiMi YouYou Show, and author of Softening The Edge.

‘Empathy in leadership is a data set for every business leader to connect to staff motivational needs and performance drivers. If you can’t understand employees’ diverse viewpoints, you almost certainly won’t be able to lead your teams to success and consistent engagement.

‘When you factor in the consistent depletion of talent from the corporate world, you realise that the demand for leaders to change their perspective is not only timely, but essential.’

Kat Gref, Managing Director of strategy management platform Cronus, agrees that leading with empathy should be seen as a positive advancement rather than a sacrificial act.

‘Empathy is about optimising your team’s performance. This personalised approach, born out of genuine understanding, not only builds trust but also showcases authenticity.

‘In my experience, it creates harmonious and productive team dynamics and contributes to our collective success as a unified and loyal team.’

Ivan Hollingsworth, workplace culture expert and founder of Centric Consultants, believes that we have to create environments where empathy and compassion are the norm if we want to mitigate against negative stress in the workplace.

‘If our teams are in a constant state of stress then they shut down the part of the brain that can rationalise, solve complex problems, and innovate. Having active empathy liberates people to think differently – which is when we do our best work.’

Learning and practising empathy

While empathetic leadership may come more naturally to some than to others, it’s most certainly a skill that can be developed and refined through practice.

Leaders can choose the strategies that work best for them, including self-reflection and peer/mentor support, as well as engaging in more structured learning opportunities.

Dr Bård Fyhn is Program Manager, NHH Executive, NHH Norwegian School of Economics:

‘Showing empathy is something we do, not something we are.

‘I recommend leaders practise active listening and seek feedback to gain increased insight into how they influence the people around them. It’s also important to show recognition. Tell employees why they are important and why you are grateful for their contribution. A big part of empathetic leadership is wishing others well.’

It’s crucial that companies prioritise empathy as part of more comprehensive approach to L&D, though, rather than assuming it will develop automatically.

Mimi Nicklin: ‘Whilst empathy is a deeply evolutionary skillset for human success, we are not seeing enough resources spent on developing it as a professional talent and therefore we are seeing the gaps between the top and the bottom expand, and consistent perceived underperformance.’

Leading with empathy

Of course, by embracing a more empathetic approach, leaders may well feel as if they are being pulled in different – and antithetical – directions.

On the one hand, they’re being pressured to leverage traditional leadership skills to drive growth, at the same time being expected to develop the soft skills that will help their organisations to adapt and evolve.

Navigating a path through this apparent contradiction will require a willingness to explore fresh ways of engaging and collaborating with others, a commitment to build a more open and inclusive workplace culture, and the resolve to normalise the behaviours necessary to support this evolution.

Patrice Gordon is an author and founder of Eminere.

‘Empathy isn’t just about understanding people’s feelings; it’s about grasping their entire world perspective. It isn’t a soft skill; it’s a power skill. By leading with empathy, you’re sending a clear message that your people are just as important as the mission.

‘When people feel valued, they’ll go to the ends of the earth for you, and that’s when productivity skyrockets. More collaboration, more enthusiasm, more innovative solutions – it’s a cascading effect.’

Jenni Kässi: ‘Nothing is as important and worth cherishing as how you connect with other humans. In today’s fast-paced working life, this is truer than ever. The strongest leaders lift others up and let them flourish.’


Diane Nowell

Writer and communications consultant