Insight article

Why empathetic leaders get results

Empathetic leadership has become crucial for businesses. Increased use of the term in management speak demonstrates a shift away from traditional management styles that have tended to be laser-focused on the organisation’s bottom-line with little recognition of the motivation and productivity of the individuals involved.

At its most basic level, empathetic leadership requires leaders to take time to understand the people they lead, and to make decisions informed by this understanding.

What changed?

The role of employers and leaders has evolved

Over the past decade, our personal and professional lives have become increasingly intertwined, a trend that has been catalysed by the pandemic.

“The office and home were once strictly separated by physical distance, but now – thanks to the internet and smartphones which mean you are always available, always on – the walls between work, home and our social identity have collapsed.”
Pandora Sykes, How do we know we’re doing it right?

Therefore, the remit of a leader is no longer limited to supporting individuals in their offices but also in their homes – which demands a greater level of empathy. 

Newer cohorts no longer respond to command-and-control leadership

One undeniable benefit of the digital age has been the ability of more people to share their personal experiences of success but more interestingly, of failure. Personal and professional stories of struggle or disappointment have dominated the world of celebrity culture in the recent past – an ‘air-brushed’ image of perfection doesn’t wash with younger generations. This has translated into the world of work too. On LinkedIn, for example, we see increasingly personal posts that highlight pertinent issues such as mental health or the struggles of parents balancing work and family life.

“Become a leader that practises vulnerability… Show that you don’t have all the answers but that you are committed to improving work culture for your employees.”
Abadesi Osunsade, The Financial Times

What’s become clear is that Millennials and Gen Z, who grew up in the age of social media and sharing, respond to a more intimate style of leadership that allows room for making mistakes and learning from them. An infallible, distant, all-knowing figure is just not what they’re used to or value in leadership.

How empathy benefits organisations

Retention of talent

In a competitive recruitment market – where traditional notions, of company loyalty are steadily on the decline (as proved by the Great Resignation last summer) leaders need to understand and respect the needs of individuals to avoid losing talent and to remain relevant as employers. For leaders to build strong teams around them, it is necessary that they put the mechanisms in place that values and prioritises getting to understand what employees want from their working lives and careers.

Unlocking new potential in your people

By taking the time to understand both the individual and collective stories of people within their teams, leaders become better positioned to understand where damaging narratives may be holding back colleagues, or even entire areas of the business. In his leadership of the England Football team, Gareth Southgate has previously talked about the importance of re-writing damaging narratives with the support of sports psychologists.

“We’ve spoken to the players about writing their own stories,” said Southgate after the team beat Colombia in an unprecedentedly victorious (for England) penalty shootout using Euro 2020. “Tonight they showed they don’t have to conform to what’s gone before. They have created their own history … We always have to believe in what is possible in life and not be hindered by history or expectations.”
Gareth Southgate, The Guardian

How you can lead with empathy

At The Storytellers, having supported a broad range of organisations and leadership teams in this area, we’ve observed a few impactful ways you can effectively demonstrate and practise empathy when communicating with teams and colleagues.

  • Empathetic leadership is not a one-way street: to understand the needs of team members, leaders must create a space that allows colleagues to be open without fear of negative consequences. Leading with empathy is not just about leaders demonstrating empathy for their team members, it’s also about allowing yourself to show vulnerability. This in turn leads to teams and individuals able to empathise with their leaders and with other colleagues.
  • Embedding a storytelling culture builds authenticity, mutual respect and trust between leaders and their teams: demonstrating empathy for your teams creates a sense of psychological safety and can remove any sense of fearing failure which can lead to inertia within teams – this something our clients are increasingly seeking guidance on. By sharing stories of success and failure, leaders can create more authentic dialogues with their teams and encourage a more dynamic atmosphere where new ideas can be brought to the table and are encouraged without judgment.
  • Empathising through data: whilst empathetic leadership is most commonly associated with soft-leadership skills, on the aggregate-level you can understand employees better through proactive and meaningful employee engagement monitoring that is informs future business strategy.

Theni recently took part in our webinar exploring how leaders can use storytelling to to build an empathetic connection with their employees. Enter your details to watch a recording of the session in full.

Theni Paramaguru

Senior Consultant