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  • Sean Ryan

Leading with Empathy

How Understanding Fuels Success



In a world where leadership is often synonymous with assertiveness and authority, a quiet revolution is taking place. It's a movement towards a more human approach—one that values understanding, compassion, and emotional intelligence; a movement towards empathy. And it can have a surprising influence on your organization's culture, morale, and even its bottom line. This is the power of empathetic leadership.



Empathy in leadership isn’t soft; it’s smart. This post unpacks the role it can play in your leadership style and your organization to foster collaboration and create a culture where everyone feels seen, valued and supported. We’ll explore the Empathy Spectrum and Empathy Map, two tools you can use to build your empathetic leadership practice.


The empathetic leader

Leadership is not about just getting stuff done. Sure, leaders need to deliver results. But outstanding leadership is about fully engaging the team to achieve great things together. That means that leadership is about who you are - your character. That encompasses characteristics like integrity, trust, trustworthiness and respect. At the very center of that core is caring…caring for your team and your organization to be their best. 


Most leaders genuinely care about their team members. The big question is: Do your team members know you care? Unfortunately, when we ask them, the answer is usually either “no” or “I really don’t know.”


We created Lead with Empathy, our professional empathy program, to help close this gap. The program results from many years of fieldwork with hundreds of leaders. Along the way, I realized that character and how we relate to others are essential. And I saw, time and time again, that so-called “soft skills,” like active listening and empathetic communications, weren’t just about being “nice” but were essential to successfully navigating change and leading through uncertainty. 


What is empathy? 

Whenever I talk about empathy and leadership, I’ve encountered confusion about what it is and why it’s an essential leadership skill. 


So… what is empathy? Empathy is simply being able to understand how someone else feels. It’s seeing how your words, actions and decisions might affect them. 


And empathy matters. 


A recent study found that up to 92% of people seek out an empathic organization when looking for a job.


And yet, other recent data shows that only 41% of employees feel like someone cares about them at work.


There’s a real empathy shortfall!  


And it’s not just about not hurting people’s feelings–it’s hurting your company’s performance. Leader empathy directly correlates with results. 


Empathy builds trust and connection, which is just another word for engagement. When people feel known and seen and know their leaders care for them, it fosters collaboration and creates a culture where everyone feels valued and supported. That’s a workplace people want to go to every day because they feel like they’re part of something that matters. 


I believe that it is increasingly a competitive advantage. As I wrote in a recent post, empathy and innovation are inherently related. 


The Empathy Spectrum

One of the first things we cover in Lead With Empathy is the Workplace Empathy Spectrum, which outlines four levels of emotional engagement in a workplace:


  1. Leaders feel sorry for others but don’t fully comprehend or connect with their experiences. Pity often involves a superficial acknowledgment of another's challenges.

  2. Sympathy involves a greater degree of emotional connection than pity. You may understand and acknowledge teammates' struggles, but there could still be a degree of separation between you and your teammate.

  3. A deeper level of understanding and connection. Leaders who demonstrate empathy understand others’ perspectives, emotions and challenges. This level of empathy fosters stronger bonds and trust within teams.

  4. The highest level of engagement in the Workplace Empathy Spectrum. At this level, leaders understand and empathize with their teammates and are deeply committed to supporting them and driving positive change. 


Ultimately, you want to hit Level 4—passion—where everyone feels connected to the organization. Passionate leaders go above and beyond to create a supportive and inclusive work environment. In return, teammates feel connected to the organization and are passionate about their success and the organization's success. 


An empathetic leader can not only dictate vision but also create a culture where the team feels heard, valued, and inspired. And we know that this translates into higher engagement, reduced turnover, and the ability to attract and retain top talent.





Reflect on your own level of understanding and engagement. What level are you typically at? How can you cultivate empathy and passion within yourself and your team?


The Empathy Map

An Empathy Map is a powerful visualization tool for understanding team members’ needs, perspectives, and emotions. It's a simple yet effective way to imagine yourself in their shoes and see things through their eyes. 


The Empathy Map was created by Dave Gray, an author and founder of XPLANE, a consultancy focused on visual thinking and design, as a tool for helping individuals understand and empathize with their target users or customers to improve product design and communication strategies. But it’s just as valuable within your organization, and your teammates. 


The Empathy Map increases understanding of others by visualizing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences by charting insights into their perspectives through four key quadrants:


SEEING

What does your team see that impacts their work? This could include their physical work environment, customers' expressions, or data.

HEARING

What are team members hearing or reading? These are the messages they're receiving from you, customers, other team members, or the broader culture of your organization.

DOING

What actions are your team taking? These can be related specifically to their job tasks, interactions with customers, or even off-hour pursuits that impact their work life.

SAYING

What is your team communicating with one another or with customers? This ranges from formal channels like meetings to informal channels like water cooler conversations and social media.


By taking the time to fill out this map and regularly updating it, you can gain a deeper understanding of your team's experiences, which in turn can inform your leadership decisions.


The Empathy Map can help you: 

  • Understand teammate’s needs

  • Prepare for discussions

  • Anticipate reactions


I hope this post inspires you to be more intentional about bringing empathy to your workplace. As we can see, the higher the level of understanding and engagement a teammate experiences, the greater their motivation and effort in the workplace. By cultivating empathy and moving toward passion, organizations can enhance teammate satisfaction, productivity, and overall success.

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