Business Advice

Why empathy is a crucial leadership skill worth developing

- September 9, 2022 3 MIN READ

Leadership has long been a dynamic dance, balancing attaining results with managing and leading people. In this era, agility and adaptability have become the skills of the thriving organisation, team and individual. The ability for teams to move within the grey and evolve to new ways of working and collaborating requires a new level of empathy for leaders, to enable a culture where that is possible, writes leadership educator Tracey Ezard.

Historically, leadership has focused on developing cognitive, logic-driven, strategic thinking. One that ‘steers the ship’ away from the rocks and into clear waters.

Many have discovered along the way that without understanding what the crew need to pull together on the oars, and what motivates them, the rocks appear swiftly and too late for evasive action.

Thriving or surviving?

The 2022 Gallup survey of the global workforce found that 60 per cent of people are emotionally detached from their workplace, with 19 per cent being downright miserable. With our personal and professional lives copping a real shake-up over the past two years, the teams that have weathered the storm the best have been the ones showing deep support and understanding for each other. Gallup also found that engaged teams create 23 per cent higher profit than miserable teams.


I’ve worked with some of those miserable teams. Most of them feel unseen, unsafe, and undervalued. They are in survival mode. The conversations between leadership and those on the ground are transactional,  a ‘tell’ culture (I’ll tell you what to do, and you do it). No rich debate is held, simply fearful compliance. Leaders do not lead; they merely send out instructions and expect obedience. Mistakes are swept under the carpet for fear of losing jobs, and no one is prepared to signal when things might be going awry.

Fortunately, I’ve also seen the impact empathy from leaders has on the results and relationships within teams. We perform better in an environment where we are supported to be our best and feel valued as human beings, not just for the work we do.

What we feel impacts on how well we think. Research continues to open our eyes to the impact of belonging, psychological safety and trust on our cognitive functioning and on outcomes. Show me a leader who can hold a safe space for their team to share their feeling and concerns about any work initiative with empathy, and I’ll show you a team that is honest and open enough to work proactively on what’s working and what is not. This team creates a learning culture, safe to share where they need support and robust enough to discuss the more challenging issues.

Empathy is the key

Empathy is a key skill of emotional intelligence. It is the ability to understand the emotions that motivate and sustain people to thrive. Daniel Goleman, whose extensive research into emotional intelligence redefined what we see as important in leadership, sees both thinking and feeling skills as critical. “How we do in life is determined by both – it is not just IQ, but emotional intelligence that matters. Indeed, intellect cannot work at its best without emotional intelligence.”


Empathy holds a space for people to ‘be’ and for us to connect to their emotions. Empathy says, ‘I see you, and I value you’ – whether we agree or not. Empathy says, ‘I seek to understand what is happening for you and how I can support you to be the best you can be’.

The key for leaders? Get curious about your people. Ask questions to understand more about what makes them tick.

  • What is important to them?
  • How do they see the state of play in your organisation?
  • Where do they think the way you all work could be improved?
  • What are their strengths; their challenges?
  • What do they need to thrive and excel?

Let’s listen deeply to their perspective with a desire to understand, humility and grace for their feedback, and acknowledgement for their courage in speaking. Then there is no limit to what we can achieve together.

This article was first published on Flying Solo. You can see the original content here.


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