The Importance of Empathetic and Purposeful Leadership

In today’s highly competitive job market, companies in every industry are hard at work to attract and retain top talent. There are many ways organizations try to do so—from creating flexible work schedules to increasing benefit offerings to putting their values at the forefront of business. 

But there’s one often overlooked aspect of recruitment that may be more effective than any of these strategies: empathetic leadership.

Benefits of empathetic leadership: mental health, motivation, communication, innovation, resolution.

“Observant managers and leaders who want to keep their valued team members can help turn the tides and put a halt to exit interviews if they learn a new skill: empathy. Today’s employees want to be seen, heard and understood. They want to be valued for their contributions, their talents and their humanity. They want to be viewed as a whole person, not just a piece of someone who completes a task,” said Michael Kurland, CEO of Branded Group, in an article he wrote for Forbes.

“In short, they want more, and if their current employer can’t (or won’t) provide this, they’ll find someone who does.”

When managers employ empathetic leadership, they help create a workforce that’s inclusive and highly engaged and offers a better work-life balance. This is why learning how to lead with empathy and purpose is so crucial. 

What Constitutes Leadership as Empathetic?

Empathy is the ability to share and understand another person’s feelings. It’s a way for one person to connect with another on a basic human level.

In a professional environment, this means being able to step out of the typical workday pressures and checklists to understand why someone else is feeling the way they feel. By understanding these emotions and perspectives, leaders can better understand employee motivations. 

“Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, but it is taking on a new level of meaning and priority. Far from a soft approach it can drive significant business results,” said Dr. Tracy Brower in a recent Forbes article. “Great leadership requires a fine mix of all kinds of skills to create the conditions for engagement, happiness and performance, and empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right.”

Empathetic leadership requires people to genuinely care for all members of their team. Instead of being solely focused on how a team member is performing, empathetic leaders take a wholehearted interest in the factors that could be affecting that person’s performance.

Leaders can display empathy in several ways. For instance, they can get to know their team members on a more personal level. They may ask about and tend to their team members’ emotional well-being, trying to put themselves in the other person’s shoes to understand the challenges they may be facing.

Why Are Empathy and Purpose Necessary in Leadership?

Many employees face significant challenges that can cause them to feel stressed, anxious, or depressed. Not only are these potentially serious health concerns, but they can also result in reduced productivity, lower morale, and lost connections.

According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety alone cost the world’s economy as much as $1 trillion annually, mostly due to reduced productivity.

Many workplace factors contribute to this, like employees having too much on their plate, being forced to work long hours, not getting enough support from their managers, or poor company culture. With many employees still working from home, there’s also a major challenge in creating a solid work-life balance.

When leaders are empathetic, they can help their employees tackle mental health obstacles, fostering a positive and healthy work environment. This results in a more productive employee base.

A Catalyst study found that empathetic leadership leads to many constructive effects, including improvements in innovation, engagement, retention, and inclusivity.

Leaders who want to boost productivity effectively must realize that the best way to do so is to show true care for their employees.

“In the twenty-first century, more than ever before, effective leadership is about serving others. The Digital Revolution is transforming a transaction-based world into a relationship-based world,” said James Strock, a speaker, author, and founder of the Serve to Lead Group.

“The capacity of individuals and organizations to serve others is greater than ever before. You’re able to create more relationships, and serve more people more effectively in those relationships, than even our recent predecessors could have conceived.”

What Are the Benefits of Empathetic Leadership for Employees?

There are multiple ways empathetic and purposeful leadership transforms employees and companies for the better, including:

Motivation and inspiration: Leaders who connect and relate to their employees are more likely to inspire and empower them. Empathetic leaders will better understand employees’ motivations, getting to the core of what makes them productive.

Improved mental health: Mental health is a major concern for the workplace. There’s a direct connection between mental and physical health, with both being tied to how productive employees are. Leaders who display empathy are better equipped to create a work environment that’s both safe and supportive of all workers’ needs.

Better innovation: Empathetic leaders possess a stronger sense of creativity and innovation among team members. Empathy helps employees feel included, making them more comfortable sharing diverse ideas. 

Better communication: Employees feel more valued, understood, and heard when their leaders display empathy. This makes them feel more comfortable voicing their thoughts. Being empathetic also increases the level of trust between leader and employee. Often, leaders who display empathy receive it back from employees, resulting in better communication.

More effective resolutions: No matter how positive a work environment is, there’s bound to be conflict occasionally. But the outcome of this conflict doesn’t have to be negative. Leading with empathy helps to resolve conflicts more effectively and efficiently, leading to relationships being strengthened rather than fractured.

The Challenges of Leading with Empathy

While there’s no doubt that empathetic leadership is essential in today’s workplace, there are certainly challenges when integrating it into a leadership approach. Some of the main challenges include:

Perceived weakness: Some employees may dismiss an empathetic leader as sensitive or weak-willed. This perceived weakness can be overcome with leadership traits such as strength, vision, and assertiveness.

Jacinda Ardern, who served as the prime minister of New Zealand from 2017 through 2023, explained this aspect of empathy when she said: “One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

Reduced diversity: Displaying empathy can result in leaders only associating with people who are like them. They don’t make strong connections with those who are different from them. To overcome this, leaders must understand their unconscious bias and be purposeful in their connections.

Poor decision-making: Because leaders will be more inclined to think about how each of their decisions will affect their employees personally, they may hesitate to make a decision that could have negative consequences on employees—even if it’s the right decision for the company. Leaders need to understand that they can be empathetic to their employees and make tough decisions for the company simultaneously.

Taken advantage of: When leaders display empathy, their employees may take advantage of them. Some people may use their leader’s kindness against them to get what they want. However, being empathetic doesn’t mean being a pushover. Leaders need to remain firm and purposeful, even as they’re being empathetic.

Strategies for Empathy and Purpose in Leadership

Now that we’ve discussed the benefits and challenges of empathetic leadership, the question remains: How can leaders be more empathetic in practice? There are many ways to achieve this, and each leader needs to figure out which way will work best for them.

Here are the best strategies for integrating empathy and purpose in leadership:

Be mindful of your mental health: Managers need to ensure that they’re paying attention to their own mental health before they can begin to pay attention to someone else’s effectively.

Listen actively: There’s a stark difference between hearing and listening. Hearing can be a passive action while listening is active. Leaders who want to be more empathetic and purposeful need to master the skill of active listening. This involves taking what other people are saying and their body language into consideration.

Discover motivations: One of the biggest aspects of productivity is motivation. Employees have motivations outside of making money, yet many companies still act as if it’s their singular goal. Empathetic and purposeful leadership involves discovering what employees’ desired incentives are. Doing so will show employees that leaders care, resulting in increased productivity.

Model the behavior: Modeling is one of the most effective ways of teaching a new skill, whether it be for a group of employees or a group of toddlers. When leaders model their empathetic behavior, they’ll be showing others how they can be empathetic and purposeful, too. This is, in essence, the definition of leading by example. 

Be humble: If leaders want to be empathetic, they must be humble. They must understand and appreciate that interactions with employees can result in them learning something too. By keeping this two-way street of knowledge open, leaders will find it easier to connect with their employees.

Using Soft Skills in Your Empathetic Leadership Strategies

Developing your soft skills is necessary for effective leadership. These skills aren’t necessarily those you learn on the job, like operating machinery or software. Soft skills are things like emotional intelligence and communicating through body language. 

While there’s a wealth of soft skills that leaders can develop to be more effective, there are some that are more directly related to empathetic leadership:

Communication: Improved communication is the top soft skill for being more empathetic and purposeful. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to lead effectively without being able to communicate clearly.

Remember that communicating isn’t just talking. It also involves active listening and paying attention to people’s body language while they talk and listen.

Dependability: Employees need to trust their leaders. They must be able to rely on them, so they feel supported.

Flexibility: Leaders can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to empathetic leadership. This leadership style requires flexibility so that each employee’s individual needs are taken into consideration. 

Self-awareness: Leaders must understand their motivations and biases to be empathetic. Becoming more self-aware will aid them in doing so. 

Emotional intelligence: Empathy is rooted in emotional intelligence, which is one’s ability to understand, manage, and express emotions in a healthy way. Emotional intelligence could be considered the soft skill most compatible with empathetic leadership. 

According to Mental Health America, “Operating with empathy and understanding is a critical part of teamwork; being able to attribute someone’s behavior to an underlying emotion will help you manage relationships and make others feel heard.”

Managers today need to integrate empathy and purpose into their leadership style. By taking a keen interest in what makes other people tick, leaders will be able to better motivate their employees while creating a happier and healthier work environment.

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