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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today Magazine

Leadership and empathy

Empathy is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox. Without a sense that their leader actually cares about them, there is almost zero chance that employees will be fully engaged at work, say Ruth Donde and Rochelle Trail.

According to Gallup 2018, the most sought-after leadership competency that people want from their own leaders is empathy. There is a shift to people skills and data analytical skills.

So how do we foster empathy and still maintain boundaries as a leader? How do we manage expectations without becoming too fluffy? The concept of “radical candour” is a useful way to see this leadership approach and provides a framework for utilising empathy in the workplace.

In the 2008 Gallup survey, followers listed hope, compassion (empathy), stability and trust as the key things that they needed from their leaders. Ten years later in 2018, empathy scored the highest. It is useful to define what empathy actually is, and how it can be used in a leadership context.


Empathy may be defined as an active attempt to understand another’s perspective (their emotion and, in essence, their reality) without always necessarily agreeing with them. It is remembering that in that person’s world, their view makes perfect sense to them.

Research indicates that without the sense that their leader actually cares about them, there is almost zero chance employees will be fully engaged at work. This can be reflected in the old adage, “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”.

Empathy fuels connection. It enables you to know if the people you’re trying to reach are actually reached. According to Simon Sinek, it is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox.

So, why is empathy seen as the number one leadership skill?

When we feel cared for, it increases trust and relatedness leading to greater employee satisfaction, engagement and retention.
When people feel acknowledged and valued they put in more effort and are more productive.
When people are appreciated by others they work better together resulting in greater collaboration and teamwork with less conflict and more creativity.
People feel happier and more satisfied resulting in greater wellbeing, commitment to the organisation and their colleagues.


Empathy is hardwired into our brains. The right supramarginal gyrus plays a role in helping us to distinguish our own emotions from another’s and to observe and assess what others experience. Mirror neurons mimic emotions of others so that we experience similar emotions. This is largely driven by subconscious reflexes.

The neurotransmitter serotonin is released when we perceive others like or respect us. We need to feel that we are valued by others, particularly those in our group. It reinforces the bond between manager and employee, leader and follower. At the same time, oxytocin works to promote empathy and trust, allowing those bonds to deepen. As we develop trust and earn trust, the more the oxytocin flows. This propels acts of generosity that strengthen the connections even further.


According to Brene Brown there are four qualities making up empathy—perspective taking, staying out of judgement, recognising emotion in others and communicating that.

While some people are naturally more empathetic than others, empathy can be learned. Empathy can be seen as a scale depending on a person’s level of empathy for others. At one end of the scale is a leader described as a “corporate psychopath” who is completely devoid of empathy and at the other a leader who is overcome with empathy. They are also more likely to suffer from “compassion fatigue” where they become burdened by the suffering of others.

Obviously, a middle ground is required where leaders are able to empathise with their followers while maintaining professional boundaries. A useful framework to approach this from is exploring the use of radical candour in the workplace.


“Radical candour” is a term introduced by Kim Scott of Google to describe the combination of caring personally and challenging directly. Caring personally goes beyond caring that the person is doing a good job. Showing you care about someone involves caring about them as a person and creating a sense of connection with them. Challenging directly involves being able to deliver hard feedback. This goes against the grain for many of us who have been brought up to believe if we haven’t got anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all (or a variation of this theme).

A good example of very simply delivered radical candour is described in Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor” talk on her website She describes her very loved but untrained dog running out into traffic and being observed by a passer-by. He simply stated, “I see that you love your dog, but if you don’t train him, he will die”.

The diagram on the previous page shows how radical candour looks plotted on a graph where “care personally” is on one axis and “challenge directly” on the other. Radical candour is exhibited by leaders when “care personally” and “challenge directly” are both equally valued and tends to result in profound change and growth. Each of the other quadrants are outlined below.


Ruinous empathy refers to those leaders who are high on “care personally” but low on “challenge directly”. Leaders who occupy space in ruinous empathy overlook or opt out of tough conversations often for fear of damaging the relationship. However, when an employee is not given the feedback they need to be able to improve and grow in their role then they are given a disservice.

In the absence of constructive feedback, this can inadvertently jeopardise not just the professional development of the employee in question, but team member engagement, the credibility of the leader and, in extreme cases, the existence of the organisation.

Leaders operating here may be “nice” and they may sugar coat their messages, with the result that they don’t land at all. Too much focus on other peoples’ feelings cripples their ability to make decisions that can lead to disappointment or bad feelings.


Unfortunately many of us probably have an idea of what obnoxious aggression may look like in the workplace and some of us have even been on the receiving end of this particular leadership approach. This tends to be exhibited by leaders who are low on the “care personally” scale and high on the “challenge directly”. This approach may get short-term results, but it is unlikely to yield any long-term commitment to the leader or the organisation.

Sometimes leaders who are fearful of giving feedback err on the side of being too harsh. There may be an assumption that directness equals being unkind. Those who do not “suffer fools gladly,” could learn to deploy a bit of empathy—taking a step back to consider what’s behind a colleague’s wish to propose what, at face value, may look like a dumb idea?


Manipulative insincerity tends to be demonstrated by leaders who are low in “care personally” and low in “challenge directly”. The message given generally lacks clarity and warmth. Manipulative insincerity is often demonstrated when someone offers a “sorry not sorry” apology. These apologies often begin with “I’m sorry you felt that way …” as if the problem is actually your emotional response not the responsibility of the faux apologiser.

This style can also play out when people are put in the position of having to give feedback for others that they may not be invested in, for example as a colleague being part of the process in a 360 for another colleague who you may not know well or work with closely.


Kim Scott describes how Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the book Lean In, which encourages women to lean in to positions of leadership (and challenging conversations), exhibited radical candour in a conversation with her. After Kim had given what she thought was a compelling and well-received presentation, Sheryl acknowledged her work and then suggested that she might engage the services of a voice coach due to the excessive use of the word “umm” in her presentation.

Kim repeatedly dismissed the need for this due to her being an experienced presenter. However, Sheryl called her on her dismissiveness and kindly stated again that she would benefit from the use of a coach. It may have been easier to let Kim continue to be dismissive, but she knew that it would be a disservice to her if she didn’t push the point home.


In order to be able to employ radical candour in your role, it is important to understand where you currently sit on the “care personally” and “challenge directly” scale.

Sometimes receiving feedback, even when delivered in the best possible way, requires some “settling in” time for the recipient. They may recognise the feedback as true and/or helpful, nevertheless it may be hard to hear. It is useful for the messenger to recognise this.


Besides demonstrating empathy in how we deliver messages, empathy in leadership also requires the skills of noticing, listening and taking another perspective.

  • • 
    We can develop empathy by observing others—noticing without labelling, challenging ourselves to be curious and genuinely care.
  • • 
    We can try to truly listen without rushing to reply—asking questions to understand more about the other person and what’s going on for them.
  • • 
    We can open up and share more of ourselves so that we create common ground and have greater mutual understanding.
  • • 
    We can perform small acts of kindness by paying attention to everyday gestures, such as holding lift doors open for others or unpacking the dishwasher.

So over to you—what’s one small way you can demonstrate more empathy today?

RUTH DONDE is a director and ROCHELLE TRAIL a course facilitator at leadership development consultancy Mantle.

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