Get In My Shoes: Nurturing Leadership Empathy



“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”         – Daniel Pink

What is Empathy?

Let’s start with what empathy is and how it differs from sympathy.

Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone else’s circumstances. Empathy, however, is being able to actually feel what someone else is feeling.

There’s no doubt that possessing empathetic skills is critical when working with everyone you come into contact with at work: your customers, your peers, your boss and, most importantly, those we lead directly.


The Research

The research on empathy tells us how important it is to being an effective leader. Empathic leaders can show their direct reports that they genuinely care about them as individuals and their abilities (Bass, 1985).

According to The Center for Creative Leadership’s research, empathy is positively related to job performance and

the leaders who show more empathy toward their direct reports are viewed as better performers by their bosses.

And who doesn’t want that?

Daniel Goleman, who is widely recognized as the godfather of emotional intelligence (which is the characteristic most positively associated with skillful leadership), has conducted studies that have yielded similar results.


Types of Empathy

When he talks about empathy, Goleman likes to divide it into three types.

The first is cognitive empathy. When someone is curious about someone else’s reality or can view the world as if seeing through their eyes, that is thought of as cognitive empathy.

Cognitive empathy helps us figure out how someone else thinks which lets us more effectively communicate with that person. We become more able to determine how they see things and even what style of communication works best with them.

Leaders with good cognitive empathy get better performance than expected from their direct reports.

It’s also been shown that cognitive empathy are able to step into other cultures more easily due to the adaptive nature that’s a component of this type of empathy.

The second of Goleman’s types of empathy is called emotional empathy. Emotional empathy allows us to quickly assimilate the non-verbal manifestations of how someone else is feeling (such as frowning or not looking you in the eye) and connect with that emotion.

Think about that – if you see the person you’re talking to looking distracted, do you stop and think “Hey maybe this guy is bored with what I’m talking about or maybe has other things on his mind”?

To be successful with emotional empathy,

we have to be able to be aware of how we manifest our own emotions.

In other words, if I know that when I’m angry my eyes narrow, I’m better able to sense that in other people and know that they may be feeling similarly.

The third and final type of empathy according to Daniel Goleman is empathetic concern. The best example of empathetic concern is the kind of genuine connection a parent feels with their child. Something you almost feel with your heart.

With empathetic concern, when your boss tells you that he or she will support you, you trust that completely. You feel like you can take risks to improve rather than working from a defensive position.

Playing to win instead of playing not to lose.

Another example of empathetic concern is when you observe a teacher allowing students to let their curiosity take them to new knowledge not possible with a more traditional style. Coloring outside the lines, so to speak.



 Can Empathy Be Learned?

So then the question becomes, how can I become more empathic? Is it just a trait I’m either born with or I’m not?

The good news is that empathy is innate (Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy in “When Elephants Weep”, Delacorte Press, 1995) but, without constant nurturing and practice, it weakens over time.

The great news is that

mindfulness training improves empathy greatly!

Because mindfulness is defined as paying purposeful attention to the present moment non-judgmentally, the practice of mindfulness allows you to focus on what’s going on with others without being distracted.

So what are these mindfulness exercises you can do to improve our level of empathy?

For comprehensive training modules on leadership development topics such as this, please visit our Solutions page.


How to Nurture Empathy Mindfully

The first step is to pay attention to whether you’re being sympathetic or empathetic with others. Remember our definitions? So are you saying “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time,” (sympathy) or are you really putting yourself in their shoes and feeling what they’re feeling (empathy)? Start paying attention to your responses to friends and family when things aren’t going well for them.

Another technique is to develop a curiosity about other people. Not in a judgmental way (“I wonder why she’s such a bitch.”) but a genuine wonder about someone regardless of their similarities or differences to you. Without making stuff up, really try to learn about others in a way that makes them interesting to you. We can honestly connect with anyone if we try hard enough.

Be honest with yourself about your prejudices about other people and, instead of dismissing them based on those prejudices, use your imagination and try to discover what you have in common. And by “prejudices” I’m not only talking about the obvious ones like skin color but also the ones maybe less discussed such as accent or hairstyle or height or weight.

Have you ever heard of active listening? Basically, it’s really listening to someone else without being distracted by what else is happening in that moment or, most importantly, by thoughts of how you’re going to respond. That means don’t interrupt people while they’re talking! It’s a sure sign that you’re not fully paying attention! That’s not always easy for leaders because having the solutions on the tip of your tongue has been ingrained in us from past traditionalists. By actively listening to others, we are able to learn each person’s unique communication style and how it can work with our own.

Along those same lines, remember that 93% of communication is non-verbal. Pay attention to tone of voice, facial expressions, body movements and think about what they might mean.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable in front of other people. That includes admitting you don’t have all the answers or even telling a story to your direct reports about a time you failed and what you learned from that experience. It allows them to see that you’re actually human!

Speaking of failing, try some self-analysis on your own fear of failure. It exists in all of us to some degree but it grew out of different experiences. Perhaps you had a bad boss or strict parent. The goal is not to assign blame or judge them but to better understand yourself so that you can empathize with others more genuinely. We have more in common when it comes to fear of failing than you might think.

Don’t be afraid of showing empathy to those with whom you have the worst connection. Yeah it’s difficult but if you can manage to understand and really feel what that “enemy” is feeling, it gets easier to do with others. And who knows! Maybe you can at least get your working relationship with that person to be tolerable. Dare to dream, right?!

Get to know the people you work with. This is one I’ve historically struggled with. Know their names and their kids’ names. Know something interesting about them, what they like and don’t like and then share the same kind of information with them about yourself. Make that human connection.

Finally, don’t forget to encourage people. Recognize their accomplishments, even if it might seem insignificant to you. That praise from one’s leader can spark loyalty at a time when they need it most.

If that all sounds like a lot, remember the impact empathy has on your performance from your boss’ perspective and the productivity gains you’ll get from your direct reports over the long haul.

Empathy really is the key to engaging others and motivating them to do their best work.

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