How Empathy Makes for Effective Leadership


The next generation of leaders must have empathy. Life is hard, and the pandemic made it harder. So, kindness and heart are becoming more important than even practical skills like accounting. Many employees are facing tremendous pressure, and now HR leaders are responding. Mental health and wellness are top priorities of organizations aiming to recruit and retain top talent. 

As a result of this shift, employers are recognizing the need for softer skills in hires. Recently, Maria Leggett, director of Education at MHI in Charlotte, North Carolina, spoke to HR Exchange Network about the importance of empathy in leadership. Leggett will be hosting a session at the online event HR and the Future of Work, which takes place February 22 to 24, 2022.  

HREN: Why is empathy vital to leadership? Why has it come to the forefront now?

ML: There is room for kindness. Now more than ever, we need kindness in the workplace. With the talent shortage and remote work, employees have more and more career options. As a result, managers need to be more people-focused and incorporate empathy and kindness into their leadership approach.

Empathy is about understanding. Having compassion allows us to see different points of view and perspectives. Employees want to be more than just “seen.” They want their managers to know that they work hard and accomplish a lot while having a life outside of work. When managers connect and collaborate with their teams effectively, they learn more about their strengths and skills and get the most out of their interactions with their teams. Empathy helps facilitate that.

HREN: How do you teach or help managers to be empathetic?

ML: Slow down, ask questions, listen more, and be authentic. When people hear more and talk less, they can be open to different perspectives and respond more appropriately to situations.  While managers may have to deliver feedback that is not always positive, people are more likely to receive the input when delivered with empathy and genuine authenticity.  

COVID has allowed people to be more authentic as they worked out of their homes, allowing people to see a personal side and providing people space to be their whole self. That won’t change when things get back to a more stable state. COVID has demonstrated that people can still show up and accomplish great work, even with a chaotic personal life. No one has time for someone to be micro-managing, uncompromising, and lacking empathy. Empathy is changing the fabric of our work culture.  

HREN: Define culture of trust. What is required for a culture of trust? Please include an example of a culture of trust. How difficult is it to achieve?

ML: Patagonia is a company that embodies a culture of trust. Their internal and external image is one of credibility and reliability. Because of their culture of trust, they are able to commit the financial resources toward sustainable environmental practices and still thrive as a company. When there is trust, decisions are made faster, people are more efficient and productive, and strong teamwork and open communication thrive. Without trust, businesses cannot move fast enough to compete with the ever more rapid pace of change.   

To have a culture of trust, people must shift their conversation to speak with positive language both to and about people. In addition, companies, managers, and employees must act in ways that inspire trust – operating with integrity and demonstrating credibility and good character. Acts of credibility can be simple to show a culture of trust.  For example, sending out an agenda before a meeting establishes trust that people’s time will be respected in a productive meeting. Trust will be a critical human skill as businesses become more automated through AI, machine learning, and robotics.

HREN: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know? If so, what?

ML: We are all here to do our best work, and when your work environment is one where you feel safe and capable of doing your best work, retention and employee engagement soar. Empathy is a critical leadership skill. The only way that companies will adapt and change and indeed be agile is by trusting their employees, management, and customers.

Register to see Maria Leggett and others discuss empathy and more at the HR and the Future of Work online event. 

Photo courtesy of Maria Leggett

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