Effective Leaders Develop and Enhance Their Empathy Skills

A top priority for many organizations is to look beyond traditional strategies for management development and recruitment to create a cadre of leaders capable of moving the company forward.

And no wonder. Ineffective managers are expensive, costing organizations millions of dollars each year in direct and indirect costs. Surprisingly, ineffective managers make up half of the today’s organizational management pool, according to a series of studies.

With such high stakes, talent management, HR professionals, and senior executives are pursuing multiple strategies for developing more effective managers and leaders.

Managers, too, may be surprised that so many of their peers are underperforming. It’s a smart move for individual managers, then, to figure out how they rank and what skills are needed to improve their chances of success.

One of those skills, perhaps unexpectedly, is empathy.

To determine if empathy influences a manager’s job performance, we analyzed data from 6,731 managers in 38 countries. We found that empathy in the workplace is positively related to job performance.

Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses. The findings were consistent across the sample: Empathic emotion — as rated from the leader’s subordinates — positively predicts job performance ratings from the leader’s boss.

While empathy is clearly important to the full sample and across all the countries in the study, the research shows that the relationship between empathy and performance is stronger in some cultures than others.

To improve their performance and effectiveness, leaders may need to develop the capability to demonstrate empathy in the workplace. Some people naturally exude empathy and have an advantage over their peers who have difficulty expressing empathy. Most leaders fall in the middle and are sometimes or somewhat empathetic.

How Organizations Can Encourage Empathy in the Workplace

Fortunately, empathy is not a fixed trait. It can be learned. If given enough time and support, leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training, or developmental opportunities and initiatives. Organizations can encourage a more empathetic workplace and help managers improve their empathy skills in a number of simple ways:


1. Talk about empathy. Let managers know that empathy matters. Explain that giving time and attention to others fosters empathy, which in turn enhances your performance and improves your perceived effectiveness.

2. Teach listening skills. To understand others and sense what they’re feeling, managers must be good listeners. Skilled listeners let others know that they’re being heard, and they express understanding of concerns and problems. When a manager is a good listener, people feel respected, and trust can grow.

3. Encourage genuine perspective taking. Managers should consistently put themselves in the other person’s place. For managers, this includes taking into account the personal experience or perspective of their employees.

4. Cultivate compassion. Support managers who care about how someone else feels or consider the effects that business decisions have on employees, customers, and communities. Go beyond the standard-issue values statement and allow time for compassionate reflection and response.

5. Support global managers. The ability to be empathetic is especially important for leaders working in global organizations or across cultural boundaries. Working across cultures requires managers to understand people who have very different perspectives and experiences. Empathy generates an interest in and appreciation for others, paving the way to more productive working relationships.

As managers hone their empathy skills, they improve their leadership effectiveness and increase their chances of success in the job. Empathetic leaders are assets to organizations, in part, because they are able to effectively build and maintain relationships — a critical part of leading organizations anywhere in the world.

 Download the full white paper below to explore our findings in more detail.

Additional Contributing Authors:

Todd J. Weber, Ph.D., is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the College of Business and Administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A former intern and postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership, Todd’s research interests are in international management, leadership, and organizational behavior.

Golnaz Sadri, Ph.D., is a professor of management at California State University, Fullerton, specializing in organizational behavior. She has expertise in organization culture, cross-cultural differences in work behavior, occupational stress, communication, and motivation. She is an adjunct coach for the Center for Creative Leadership.

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