According to everywhere from Forbes to the Harvard Business Review and The New York Times, empathy in leadership is a hotter topic than a New York summer without air conditioning. Empathy, in general, has taken the business world by storm, and though it seems like many outlets just tell you that the key is to listen more than you talk, empathy is a complicated human experience that can result in an unusually strong bond. It’s one thing to tell executives that an empathetic leader is the best kind of leader. But what does empathy in the workplace really do? Is it really that important?

A study from Catalyst notes that empathetic leadership is much more important than data has previously indicated. In a 2021 study of over 900 participants primarily working mid-level and entry-level positions, it was found that empathetic leadership is more than just a trendy term. Luckily, 70% of respondents felt that their lives outside of work and their individual circumstances were taken seriously by their companies. As a result, they felt as if their companies were more inclusive, more respectful, and ultimately, employees thought about leaving at a significantly lower rate.

And even of those who didn’t necessarily feel that their company at large was empathetic, even one or two supportive voices in the crowd can make all the difference. 61% of people with highly empathetic senior leadership report feeling more innovative at work. Another 76% report feeling more engaged and willing to go the extra mile. Empathetic managers have also been shown to decrease burnout, and employees with both more empathetic senior management and direct management are likely to have better tools to balance work/life needs.

Before the pandemic, it was much easier to go to the office, play ball, and leave the game on the field, so to speak. You didn’t need a great deal of empathy because even if your job was hard or you were going through something at home, you were able to clock in and clock out without disclosing too many details. But now, work is all the time – everywhere we are, everything we do, the work laptop is the same one we play on, and work comes with us to the couch, the coffee shop, and everywhere else. Work-life is enmeshed with home life, and employers are now seeing their employees in ways they never thought they would. This requires consideration and assessment, a level of understanding around new work parameters and boundaries, and yes – empathy.

What it means to be an empathetic leader

Empathy can be broken up into three different arenas: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. The cognitive area of empathy is concerned with logic and thought, and the ability to follow someone’s argument or line of thinking. Affective is about the affect (or emotion) that someone shows, and someone who has affective empathy is able to discern how and why someone might be feeling the emotion that they are. And finally, behavioral empathy is about connecting with someone’s actions, and trying to get a sense of what their actions might mean.

An empathetic leader ideally not only has all three qualities in an internal way, they also have to externalize their empathy so that employees don’t feel as if their bosses are saying one thing, then doing another. There are a couple basic steps to follow if you find yourself having a difficult time empathizing with an employee:

  • Identify the kind of empathy needed – is it cognitive? Affective? Both?
  • Think about how you feel – do you feel angry at what they did? Saddened? Entertained?
  • Think about how they feel – why did they do what they did? What did they get out of it?
  • Bridge the gap – think about the ways you felt similarly to them, or even how you may have handled the situation. Did they react in a way that makes sense to you?
  • Open up the conversation – go to the employee, and let them know that you’ve been reviewing the situation in your head. Ask them to go into more detail about their thoughts and feelings, and attempt to work through the emotions so that the situation doesn’t happen again.

List of empathetic strategies

The list above might be a basic 101 course in empathetic leadership, but if you already consider yourself empathetic, you’re probably looking for more nuanced tips as to how empathy should be integrated into the workplace. The responses from employees in Catalyst’s survey report that these are some simple actions employers can take to allow employees to feel empathized with.

1. Personal check-ins

Everybody loves a 1:1, but if you’re not asking the right questions, they can become boring, stale, or worse, fake-friendly. Respondents to the Catalyst survey note that an employer asking what employees need to do to do their job well is a huge bonus, along with personalized statements of appreciation, or thoughtful thank-yous.

2. Noticing body language

If you’re in a meeting and you see an employee on mute who happens to be rolling their eyes and looking exasperated, don’t just privately message them to switch off their camera. An employee with an attitude isn’t just a jerk – they might be just a very visual barometer for the underlying mood of the team. Pull them aside after the meeting privately, and don’t scold them. Simply ask them why they were so frustrated, and try to understand their point of view. Who knows, you might learn something about a team’s dynamics, or even about a part of the project that could be run more efficiently.

3. Understanding home issues

Another hallmark of an empathetic leader is when employees are told that bringing up issues at home is welcomed. Oftentimes, employees might not want to elaborate on why they missed that deadline or bowed out of that meeting, or perhaps they’ve had some streaky behavior over the course of a month or more. By allowing employees the freedom to bring up issues at home (in a professional and respectful way that doesn’t dominate meetings, of course), they feel understood, respected, and more willing to communicate.

4. Flexible hours

Ah, yes, the all-important flexible hours that all remote workers now cannot live without. Flexible hours are a signifier of an empathetic employer because, in a time where work and life overlap significantly, and the balance is essentially gone, employers can trust that if something comes up for an employee, they can simply complete the task on their own time and still get it in by the deadline. If they miss a meeting, they can go look at the notes, or catch up with a colleague. An empathetic boss knows that you don’t need to be highly regimented or scheduled rigidly to get the job done – if you have a good relationship with your employee, they’ll look out for you as much as you look out for them.

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