Empathetic Leadership: Think Being Empathetic is a Soft Skill?

Wrong! It Drives Hard Results

Workers want managers who are empathetic leaders. Gone are the days when managers only had to make choices and tell others what to do. Now, a leader must be able to connect with their team and support every member’s career aspirations and growth.

Before you stop reading because you think this is just “fluff”, showing empathetic leadership isn’t a sign of weakness in business leaders. It’s a misconception that showing empathy makes you a soft leader or inhibits you from achieving results. Quite the opposite, empathy is a powerful tool that can drive long-term success.

“Empathy is important. As a leader, you need to align your team, understand their perspectives, and make them feel part of the culture. Listen more, talk less, check for alignment, and focus on the importance of an inclusive culture.” Karl Fessenden, CEO BrandSafway

Empathetic leadership is upskilling from monitoring people to finding innovative ways to lead with care and kindness. Because this is what people need to be motivated and productive.

Gotara’s recent research revealed what team members want from their managers. Three of the top four needs cited by a study of 30,000 members from 174 countries include:

  • Appreciation from managers
  • Adequate support
  • Accessible growth opportunities

These can only come from an empathetic leader. And this is not just true for women (Gotara target population).

An empathetic leadership style benefits all employees and the company. It’s not a trade-off between empathy and results.

A black woman stands proudly in an office with coworkers behind her.

What Are Empathetic Leaders?

The simplest and most fundamental definition of empathy is “putting yourself in others’ shoes.” And while it might sound incredibly straightforward, we often overlook or underestimate it, especially as leaders and managers.

But once you’ve done that as a manager, you’re more likely to make more informed decisions that resonate with the people you lead — because empathetic leaders understand what people expect.

President of Consumer Information Services at Experian Scott Brown said it well: ”Being a good leader means being a good human being to your team.”

And it can only happen with an empathetic leadership style.

An illustration of a woman working from home on a couch

Top Qualities of an Empathetic Leader

  1. Active Listening: Seek to understand others’ perspectives and emotions without judgment.
  2. Open-Mindedness: Stay open to diverse ideas, backgrounds, and viewpoints.
  3. Adaptability: Adjust your leadership style to meet your team halfway.
  4. Conflict Resolution: Address conflicts with fairness, seeking win-win solutions.
  5. Supportive Feedback: Provide constructive feedback with empathy, helping others grow.
  6. Collaboration: Encourage teamwork and value the contributions of every team member.
  7. Inclusivity: Promote diversity and make everyone feel valued and heard.
  8. Communication: Communicate openly, honestly, and with clarity.
  9. Recognition: Acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of all team members.
A woman engineer sorts through computer wiring in a STEM lab

The Changing Landscape of Leadership

SHRM research shows that managers today need qualities beyond traditional managerial traits. While technical expertise, hard work, and being a role model remain significant, this bundle is no longer sufficient to define a successful manager.

Moreover, the emphasis has shifted towards practices that can lower attrition. Managers must proactively nurture talent and foster an inclusive team culture, so everyone feels valued. They can do it by communicating their vision clearly and providing regular feedback through an always-open channel for dialogue.

Managers must promote empathetic relationships to retain talent and drive business growth.

An illustration of a woman worker playing tug-of-war with her male counterparts

Why Is Being Empathetic Important in Leadership?

Contrary to the misconception that empathetic leadership might curb business results, it actually enhances business outcomes. Balancing empathy with driving results is not a mutually exclusive dilemma. In fact, a compassionate leadership style can positively impact business performance in multiple ways.

Empathy doesn’t mean compromising or tolerating mediocrity. Being tough and being empathetic are complementary leadership qualities. An empathetic leader can identify individual strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge to support and guide the team. It’s about pushing team members beyond their comfort zones with tact and a genuine concern for their well-being. This combination of high expectations and empathy creates a culture of accountability, trust, and collaboration, ultimately driving both personal and team success.

That’s how empathetic leaders manage to improve employee morale and engagement. Team members feel valued and understood, which leads to higher job satisfaction and increased motivation. It creates a ripple effect throughout the organization — 85% of employees feel that empathetic leadership leads to innovation, while 81% say it also increases revenue.


A boost in job satisfaction positively impacts employee retention. Turnover rates decline when employees feel their voices are heard and their concerns addressed. In the long run, companies that practice empathetic leadership save recruitment and training costs and ensure the continuity of institutional knowledge and expertise.

On the other hand, the costs of not paying attention to empathy in the workplace can cost your company millions of dollars. Employees may experience frustration and tension due to unresolved conflicts and increased workplace stress. Creativity and innovation drop. Talented team members seek opportunities elsewhere, and new employees may be discouraged from joining an organization with a negative reputation in the job market.

Everything is connected, and teaching and practicing empathetic leadership will impact multiple aspects of the organization with excellent ROI.

Leadership and Empathy Cultivation in STEM

In the STEM industry, a common challenge arises when technical stars reach managerial positions with minimal preparation for the responsibilities that come with the promotion. This abrupt transition can lead to a longer-than-necessary ramp-up time as these individuals start dealing with what it means to promote team building, foster collaboration, and inspire employees.

It’s nothing that a comprehensive leadership development program can’t fix. Unfortunately, too few STEM organizations are aware of how much upskilling managers from day one can impact attrition and retention in the long run.

This field benefits immensely from different perspectives and new ideas, and it requires empathetic leaders because they’re better equipped to nurture diverse teams.

Upskilling, mentoring, and coaching programs for managers show them how to be culturally sensitive, promote equality, and actively seek out diverse perspectives to drive productivity, innovation, and growth.

  • Upskilling helps leaders understand the importance of empathy. Upskilling managers can include personalized content on active listening skills, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and communication techniques that promote understanding and connection, all in the context of solving business problems. These skills empower leaders to build strong relationships and understand team members’ needs, ultimately driving better team performance and results.
  • Mentoring pairs emerging leaders with experienced mentors who can be role models for empathetic leadership. Mentors provide guidance, share personal experiences, and offer feedback, helping mentees develop empathy and leadership skills as they encounter challenges and complexities in managing teams.
  • Coaching helps leaders gain a deeper understanding of their own emotions, biases, and communication styles. Armed with personalized advice from a coach who’s walked in their shoes, managers can build an empathetic workplace where everyone can thrive and meet individual and team goals.
A remote working woman hugs her young child

What’s Next?

Empathy is particularly significant for first-level managers. These managers are the closest to the day-to-day work and significantly impact shaping your company’s culture. Their ability to lead with empathy can greatly influence team dynamics, employee engagement, and overall workplace morale.

So, what are the first steps for building a pipeline of empathetic leaders for your organization? Start by identifying potential empathetic leaders and enrolling them in leadership development programs tailored to enhance their empathy, interpersonal, and business acumen skills — this will help you build an empathetic workplace. 

Your journey toward more compassionate and effective leadership begins today. Let’s take the first step together.