Historically, empathy and compassion have been viewed as “soft” leadership skills – nice to have but not imperative. Recently, that perception has shifted and empathy has quickly risen to become an essential leadership trait and powerful business driver. Studies have shown that 77% of employees would work longer hours for an empathetic employer, and 92% of employees would be more likely to stay with a company that empathized with their needs1.

Empathy helps employees feel heard, understood, and motivated. It gives employees confidence in their leaders to steer the ship and faith in their leaders to consider their perspectives when making decisions.

Why does empathy start with leaders?

Over the past several months, we’ve been working with global leaders who are under tremendous pressure to keep their business on track, engage their employees, and deliver results. All while they’re being stretched in new ways.

At Daggerwing, we know that people learn by example. And it’s up to leadership to set a culture of empathy into motion through visible actions.

So, what does it mean to be an empathetic leader?

Empathetic leaders can easily step into the shoes of others – and sense the needs and emotions of those around them. They easily find common ground with their employees, understand their experiences, and sincerely express compassion. This sincerity is only possible when leaders view a situation through the eyes of others, looking beyond their own views and experiences.

As our work environments continue to stay in flux, leaders face new challenges in developing empathy. Leaders must understand the dynamics at play not only within the walls of an office but also within the walls of their team members’ homes.

To harness the full power of empathy, here are three things to do right away:

1. SHOW YOUR HUMANITY.

As a leader, you are called on to motivate and set the tone for those around you. When you have a consistent pulse on your team’s feelings, this task is significantly easier. By empathizing with your team and understanding their environment and dynamics, you can more easily build their trust and gain their respect. Your employees will trust that you consider their perspectives and respect your decisions, even when they are affected by them.

To create common ground with your people, share when situations have made you feel vulnerable. Your stories will empower employees to face the moments that scare them or make them uncomfortable. Your stories can also create closer connections between you and your team – dialogue around common shared experiences humble us and help us relate to each other.

2. LISTEN TO UNDERSTAND.

Leaders often feel they need to show up with all of the answers. But sometimes, the best thing you can do as a leader is to listen. By listening, you signal to your team that you care and that you’re taking their experiences into account when you make decisions, even if they are different from your own.

This listening won’t happen organically. Set aside time to get to know your team members on a one-on-one basis, create more opportunities for open dialogue, and find ways to become an even better listener. Start by watching your listen/speak ratio, asking questions, and taking ‘a beat’ before you respond.

3. BE FLEXIBLE.

Especially now, employees need leaders to acknowledge that we’re not just working from home. We’re trying to work, from home, during an unprecedented time. With partners co-working in the same space, kids at home, and pets making guest appearances on Zoom, we’re all navigating a new “normal”.

Take this opportunity to reset expectations with your team. Encourage your team, and yourself, to become more comfortable with delays, changes, and failures. (A skill that will have value long after this pandemic ends.) Find ways to set boundaries between your home and your work. Without flexibility and separation, we all risk burning out.

Can empathy “go wrong”? What to avoid:

When used wisely, empathy has the power to make teams stronger, smarter, and more flexible. However, when used incorrectly, empathy has the power to further divide teams or exhaust leadership. That’s why it’s crucial to avoid these common missteps:

EMPATHY GAPS.

Various scholars have found, in various contexts, an ‘empathy gap’ between ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group.’ In one study, soccer fans showed more concern over pain felt by fans of their favorite team than over pain felt by fans of a rival team”2. Empathy can cause leaders to over-sympathize with team members who they have the most in common with and under-appreciate concerns from other team members.

To use empathy across your team, leaders must actively work against bias of any kind. Yes, actively fighting against decades of learned behavior is easier said than done. But the first step is awareness. Pausing to reflect and consider if bias is at play is pivotal to the success of empathy throughout any team.

COMPASSION FATIGUE.

Empathy can also cause struggles for leaders themselves. Too much empathy can hinder your performance or even lead to compassion fatigue. Empathy is a renewable resource, but you have to protect yourself and the empathy you expend to avoid getting depleted during stressful periods, like a crisis.

It is important to avoid focusing solely on empathy. Instead, use it as a valuable tool in your leadership arsenal. Remember to rely on your other skills, like creativity and strategic thinking, when appropriate.

We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Now would be a good time to reflect on your empathy habits. Do you use too little? What steps will you put into action to become an empathetic leader? Do you use too much? When can you dial back empathy and lean into other skills?

These small changes in your behavior might be the push your team needs to become truly united and successful.


1 Hyken, Shep. “A $600 Billion Employee Engagement Problem Solved: Empathy.” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/shephyken/2018/02/25/a-600-billion-employee-engagement-problem-solved-empathy/#66d59008b1a3 

2 Wright, Robert. “Empathy is Tearing Us Apart.” Wired, https://hbr.org/2019/05/making-empathy-central-to-your-company-culture

Kate MacPherson, Creative Director

Kate MacPherson, Creative Director

Kate MacPherson is a Principal, Creative Director at Daggerwing Group. She is a career creative director who cares deeply about good design in all forms and applies creativity and empathy to change strategies for her clients. She helps to create inspired solutions to solve companies pressing challenges. In her spare time, she hangs out with her husband Scott, their 2 year old James, 2 stepdaughters and is currently addicted to her new Peloton bike.

Tiana Ritchell, Managing Consultant

Tiana Ritchell, Managing Consultant

Tiana Ritchell is a Managing Consultant at Daggerwing Group. Her past experience in Human Resources and Organizational Development gives her unique insight into the human element of strategic communications and change management. She is passionate about helping companies drive cultural transformation in a way that delivers results, while speaking to employees and meeting them where they are. Outside of work, Tiana enjoys cooking for family and friends – especially traditional Italian dishes!

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