Can Empathy Make You a Better Leader?
Embracing empathy builds trust, promotes psychological safety, and encourages innovation, allowing leaders to unlock their team's full potential.
WRITTEN BY: ADAM DANYAL
For most of us, climbing the career ladder requires developing a thick skin and keeping emotions in check. Showing vulnerability is seen as a weakness, not a strength. Success often means projecting more authority than empathy.
Or does it?
Some very effective leaders suggest the opposite. They say embracing empathy in the workplace is not just a “nice to have”—it’s essential. The new thinking goes like this: leaders who display empathy build trust, promote psychological safety on their teams, and encourage innovation.
Picture this common scenario. An employee pitches an idea in a meeting. It gets quickly shot down. Now imagine the leader responds by saying, “I understand you put a lot of thought into this. Getting an idea rejected in front of colleagues can be discouraging. I’ve been there.”
That simple act of acknowledging the employee’s emotions makes them feel seen. They walk out feeling respected, not defeated.
Contrast this to the all-too-familiar “that’s business” mentality. Ideas live and die on merit alone, with little care for the bruised egos left in the aftermath. This may breed toughness, but at what cost?
Brené Brown, renowned researcher on vulnerability, notes that empathy fuels creativity and problem-solving by promoting psychological safety. When employees feel their leader “gets them,” they take more interpersonal risks by speaking up and contributing ideas without fear of embarrassment or rejection.
That level of safety enables innovation.
Developing empathy starts with being present. When an employee is speaking, resist the urge to multitask. Listen with the intent to understand their perspective, not just gather information.
Next, get curious about emotions. Ask questions to learn how proposals or feedback lands on someone personally: How did receiving that feedback make you feel? What personal meaning does this project hold for you?
Finally, connect on shared experiences. “I’ve faced a similar challenge when...“ or “That happened to me once too...” bridges the power distance.
Showing empathy takes courage. But as authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote, “Leadership is an affair of the heart.” When we lead with empathy, we show our team they matter more than metrics. Their potential is unlocked, and human bonds strengthen.
Can empathy make you a better leader? Have the courage to find out for yourself.
From our Leadership Bookshelf:
WRITTEN BY: JULIA DANYAL
Empathy is not just a soft skill - it drives concrete business results. Hubert Joly, former CEO of Best Buy, shares in his book "The Heart of Business," how an empathetic culture enabled the company's remarkable turnaround.
Joly promoted psychological safety by encouraging questions and dissent without judgment. This allowed for more risk-taking and creative problem-solving.
He writes "Leadership is about the heart...It's about human experiences and interactions." When employees feel valued, they extend care to each other and customers.
Empathy takes courage as a leader. But it breeds trust, boosts morale, and unlocks potential in people.
Joly led with empathy by listening deeply, getting curious about emotions, and connecting through shared experiences.
An empathetic culture ripples through the entire organization. Employees pass on the care they receive, enhancing collaboration, innovation, and customer experiences.
Joly makes a compelling case that empathy is not just a nicety - it's a competitive advantage. Are you ready to lead with heart? The rewards for your team and company could be immense.