The value of empathic leadership in the workplace

WalkMe Team
By WalkMe Team
Updated May 8, 2023

Empathic leadership is being increasingly recognized as a trait that can translate into real value for an organization, the workforce, and even the bottom line. 

Not only does empathy improve team morale and cohesion, but it also boosts crucial employee metrics such as productivity and retention.

Statistics that prove the value of empathic leadership

Empathy and empathic leadership may be intangible concepts, but research has proven their merit in the workplace.

According to research from Catalyst:

  • Empathy improves employee productivity, employee engagement, and innovation
  • Employee retention is positively correlated with empathic leadership
  • Empathic leaders respect employees’ circumstances and better support their life and work needs

Businessolver has uncovered statistics that demonstrate the advocacy of empathy in work environments. In their 2021 State of Workplace Empathy report, they found that:

  • 84% of CEOs believe empathy drives better business outcomes
  • 72% of employees believe empathy drives employee motivation
  • Only 1 in 4 of employees believe empathy in their organizations is sufficient

The Center for Creative Leadership, likewise, has found that empathic managers are viewed as better performers by their bosses.

Empathy has always been a critical factor in workplace performance, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of empathy during stressful times. 

The effects of remote working have had a significant impact on many workers. According to Paychex, the pandemic’s effects are mixed:

  • 20% of workers feel that the pandemic has worsened workplace relationships
  • 44% report that relationships have not changed
  • 36% report they have improved

The study also analyzed certain leadership actions during meetings, such as inquiring about hobbies, ending meetings with bonding games, and acknowledging stress or work burnout. 

The findings showed that of all the actions leaders took, allowing teams to discuss current events in meetings was the most effective for improving team cohesion. 

Though this specific tactic may not be true across every team, these findings illustrate the fact that managers’ activities have a deep influence on teams and workplace dynamics.

Another takeaway is the fact that every team is unique and will therefore react differently to varying leadership styles. This only highlights the importance of empathy. But, of course, in order to cultivate empathy in the workplace, it is first necessary to understand exactly what it means.

A definition of empathy

Empathy, says Psychology Today, is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character. 

The magazine goes on to say that the ability to experience the perspective of others enables prosocial behaviors, which aligns with the idea that empathy produces a positive effect in the workplace, as demonstrated in the statistics above.

Unfortunately, some studies have shown that empathy has been in decline for years in the United States.

Jamil Zaki, a Stanford neuroscientist who emphasizes the need for a more empathic world, suggests that one reason can include a decrease in the number of social rituals, which can include everything from bowling to grocery shopping. 

At the same time, many people are engaging in more solitary pursuits, often online, with the result that interactions become “thinned out, anonymous and tribal—barren soil for empathy.”

Given the events of 2020 and the shift towards remote work, it would not be hard to speculate a detrimental impact on empathy in the workplace.

At this point, the question then arises: Can empathy be learned?

Cultivating empathy in the workplace

To a certain extent, empathy is a trait, not a skill. It has a genetic component, which, naturally, cannot be changed. 

Research has also suggested, however, that certain activities do increase empathy, such as meditation, reading novels, and spending time with individuals different from ourselves. 

Leaders and managers who want to improve their leadership skills can certainly engage in these types of activities to increase their own empathy. 

There are a couple of important points to note when it comes to empathic leadership and empathy in the workplace.

On the one hand, empathic leadership can increase employees’ trust in their managers, improve employee metrics, and improve employer branding. These benefits which stem from employee engagement can positively influence customer experiences and customer metrics, from satisfaction ratings to lifetime value.

On the other hand, empathy should not just be a trait that belongs to business leaders and managers. The more that empathy is cultivated across the workforce, the greater the chances are that teams will feel closer and that employee performance will improve.

To increase empathy in teams, managers should naturally focus only on activities that are feasible. Reading novels on company time, for example, would hardly be a reasonable use of resources.

Here are a few other approaches that could actually produce positive results:

  • Allowing open discussion of current events during meetings, as noted in the Paychex study above, was shown to increase feelings of team closeness (just do your best to steer clear of politics.)
  • Corporate wellbeing programs can help teams build empathy through group activities or practices such as meditation
  • Company retreats and social activities, even those that take place online, can build stronger bonds between teams, their managers, and one another

The bottom line for most organizations is that empathy is an important trait to preserve and cultivate, both for managers and teams. In today’s remote, hybrid office, it is absolutely pivotal to find ways to improve empathy at every level of the organization, from leadership to teams.

WalkMe Team
By WalkMe Team
WalkMe pioneered the Digital Adoption Platform (DAP) for organizations to utilize the full potential of their digital assets. Using artificial intelligence, machine learning and contextual guidance, WalkMe adds a dynamic user interface layer to raise the digital literacy of all users.