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Getting Empathy Right: Leading with Compassion in Uncertain Times

In today's complex and turbulent work environments, the ability to lead with empathy is more important than ever. While empathy has gained recognition as a crucial skill for organizational leaders, common misunderstandings persist about what empathic leadership truly entails and how it can be developed and applied effectively.

Today we will try to clear up some misconceptions by exploring empathy from both a theoretical and practical standpoint, using academic research as a foundation to derive guidance relevant for today's organizations.

Defining Empathy

To understand empathic leadership, we must first clarify what empathy is - and is not. Empathy has been defined as "the ability to sense people's emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling" (Goleman, 2006, p. 86). This definition highlights two essential components: emotional recognition and mental perspective-taking. Empathy involves registering and comprehending another's affective state, while projecting oneself into their situation cognitively. Sympathy, in contrast, is feeling concern or sorrow for another, without necessarily understanding their inner experience.

Importantly, empathy does not mean giving in to another's subjective viewpoint or losing one's own perspective. Rather, it is about grasping how someone feels from within themselves. Without emotional resonance, cognitive perspective-taking remains abstract; without mental envisioning, emotional recognition remains superficial (Decety & Jackson, 2004). True empathy entails fully integrating both affective and cognitive skills to comprehend another person holistically. This differentiated understanding of empathy is crucial to leading with it effectively.

Overcoming Barriers to Empathic Leadership

While empathy is a core human capacity, various factors can impede its expression and development, especially in organizational contexts. Common barriers include lack of time, perceived weakness, fears of contagion, and perspective-taking fatigue (Goleman, 2020). Leaders must recognize such impediments and actively cultivate strategies for overcoming them.

For instance, time pressure is a perennial challenge, but research shows brief empathic interactions can still boost relationships and performance (Reynolds & Glomb, 2010). Leaders can carve out small moments, such as pausing to acknowledge employee personal lives or actively listening during check-ins, which nourish human connection despite busy schedules.

Some leaders worry empathy signals weakness, but showing care and understanding strengthens rather than undermines authority when grounded in candor, competence, and conviction (Kouzes & Posner, 2017). A confident empathic approach demonstrates emotional intelligence alongside vision and courage under pressure.

Concerns over emotional contagion fading decision-making are reasonable but surmountable. Compartmentalization allows temporary immersion in others' feelings while maintaining objectivity for analysis and judgment (Quoidbach et al., 2014). Overall, addressing rather than avoiding empathy barriers enables more compassionate leadership without compromising effectiveness.

Applying Empathic Leadership in Organizations

Developing Empathic Listening

Once empathy' main components are clear and impediments addressed, leaders can start applying it strategically. Giving focused attention when others speak is fundamental. Rather than formulating responses, active listening aims to grasp different perspectives holistically through body language mirroring, open questions, paraphrasing, and reflection (Rogers & Farson, 1957). Online chat tools present new opportunities for empathic listening amid remote environments.

Understanding Diverse Viewpoints

Inclusive leadership requires comprehending how demographics, backgrounds, and life experiences shape each person's reality. For instance, after recruiting diverse talent, a technology company incorporated empathy training to help managers grasp intersecting challenges faced by female engineers from underrepresented minorities. Workshop discussions enabled managers to gain fresh understanding and tailor support more effectively.

Building Psychologically Safe Environments

Research links psychological safety - feeling able to take interpersonal risks without damaging one's self-image, status or career - to organizational learning, quality problem-solving and performance (Edmondson, 1999). Leaders foster this essential condition by role-modeling empathic listening, appreciation of multiple viewpoints and speaking respect. During times of crisis, healthcare administrators ensure staff know their physical and emotional well-being directly impacts patient care quality.

Drawing on Emotional Regulators

Studies show certain leaders use emotional regulation strategies like reappraisal - reframing stressful situations constructively - to temper initial reactions and empathize with multiple stakeholder needs (Gohm et al., 2005). For example, during a personnel dispute, the head of an international aid organization reappraised an angry employee interaction to consider systemic issues impacting staff well-being beyond the surface behavior. This regulated emotional response enabled a resolution building future resilience.

Managing Emotional Labor

Due to its interpersonal demands, empathic leadership involves what scholars term "emotional labor" - managing feeling displays according to job needs (Hochschild, 1983). Leaders must monitor potential strain and "burnout," utilizing techniques like expressing emotions safely with trusted others, practicing self-care, and periodically stepping back to regain perspective. Empathy requires commitment but does not necessitate personal emotional depletion or helplessness.


In closing, this essay has aimed to provide organizational practitioners with a theoretically grounded yet practical view of empathic leadership. While misperceptions persist that empathy risks weakness or takes too much time, leaders addressing historical barriers and strategically applying components like active listening, perspective-taking and psychologically safe culture building can reap rewards of strengthened relationships, innovation and resilience especially during uncertain periods. Ultimately, empathic leadership anchored in compassion unites head and heart to navigate complexity compassionately - a capability ever more crucial for organizations navigating twenty-first century challenges in service of their social purposes. With commitment to developing this crucial skillset, leaders are better equipped to surmount obstacles and create sustainable value for all stakeholders.


  • Decety, J., & Jackson, P. L. (2004). The functional architecture of human empathy. Behavioral and cognitive neuroscience reviews, 3(2), 71-100.

  • Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 350-383.

  • Gohm, C. L., Corser, G. C., & Dalsky, D. J. (2005). Emotional intelligence under stress: Useful, unnecessary, or irrelevant?. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(6), 1017-1028.

  • Goleman, D. (2006). Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. Random House.

  • Goleman, D. (2020). What makes a leader? The psychology of leadership and the emotions that drive performance. Harvard Business Review Press.

  • Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Univ of California Press.

  • Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations. John Wiley & Sons.

  • Quoidbach, J., Mikolajczak, M., & Gross, J. J. (2014). Positive interventions: An emotion regulation perspective. Psychological bulletin, 141(3), 655.

  • Reynolds, S. J., & Glomb, T. M. (2010). Stolen glances and stolen moments: The influence of brief distractions on daily affect. In Emotions and organizational governance (pp. 135-152). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

  • Rogers, C. R., & Farson, R. E. (1957). Active listening. Journal of Communication, 7(2), 3-9.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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