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Empathy: It’s your game-changer

How can leadership convert empathy from pity into action? Learn more about what empathetic, effective leadership looks like.

5 min read


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Weaving Influence is a full-service digital marketing agency. Since launching 10 years ago, Weaving Influence has helped clients launch more than 150 books, carving its niche in working with authors, thought leaders, coaches, consultants, trainers, nonprofit leaders and speakers to market their services and books. This post is by Dr. Betty Johnson.

Empathy is essential to leadership. It greases the wheels of productivity, fosters loyalty, and creates inclusion. But to leaders, even imagining being empathetic is scary.

As an exasperated president of a retail company said to me recently, “Who has the time?”

My answer? You do. Because empathy isn’t a waste of time. It’s not about feeling pity, getting dragged down into someone’s negativity, or saying “there-there, it’ll all get better,” with pats on the back. As I wrote in “Making Virtual Work”:

“It’s not the squishy, Kumbaya, let’s-all-hold-hands thing, or the wallowing in misery that you might think it is. It’s leadership for change.”

Empathetic leadership is action for change: Feelings are not action. But your listening, choosing to understand versus reacting, and doing what they need from you? Those actions create change and put their (and your) feet moving in the right direction.

Empathy is action on behalf of your people and you: In your crazy, busy schedule, you choose to act with empathy because that’s how you and they get more done. That’s how you build work relationships that survive the tough times and the great resignation.

Leaders do empathy in three steps:

1. Understand how they feel without feeling sorry for them. In challenging work situations, ask your people, “What’s this like for you?” Then listen to understand. Don’t try to talk them out of their feelings or suggest they look on the bright side of things. Even if they tell you something you don’t want to hear, focus on what you can learn. Respond with an easy tone, “Say more? I’m interested.”

2. Resonate with what they feel without getting dragged into an undertow. Their feelings are their reality, not yours. Show you relate with what’s true for them. Not by saying, “me too,” or “I know just how you feel.” Because you are not them, so you can’t fully know.
Show you resonate with them through your facial expressions. How you appear to them is far more important than saying the right words. Be fully present and observe. Mirror them. If they appear stoic, adopt a stoic expression. If they’re weeping, allow your face to show sadness.

Stay in your own reality while letting what they’re experiencing evoke something similar in you. But remember: your focus is them, not you.

3. Do what they need to make things better. You’re not a mind reader. Or a prophet. And you don’t live in their reality. So, you must ask them, “What will make things better for you?” or “What will help keep this good thing going for you?”

Listen for what they need from you. Because, if you can do what they need, even if it means a small sacrifice of your time or wants, in the end, you’ll get what you want, too: their productivity, loyalty, engagement, commitment, and trust. That’s what the experts call “go slow to go fast.”

Leader or empath?

A savvy leader uses empathy in ways that maintain their solid self-other awareness: “This is me and my reality, this is you and yours. I’m interested and want to help make things the best they can be for you.”

Savvy leaders recognize and understand their emotions and thoughts as distinguished from others’. That self-other awareness is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence. Without it, people get sucked in and overwhelmed by other people’s experiences.

So, let’s be clear. Empathetic leaders do not absorb others’ feelings like a sponge, as do empaths. Empaths lack emotional filtering: they can’t protect themselves from excessive stimulation.

Empathy: It’s your game-changer

There’s a vast amount of scientific study on the value of empathy to leadership and organizations. But you’re a busy leader, with sometimes more on your plate than you want. So put these ideas in your pocket and keep going.

But slow down long enough to understand and resonate with others’ reality, ask what will make things better for them, and help create those conditions. Do that, and you’ll get more than employee retention. You’ll build capacity, innovation, quality and a spirit of commitment in your team.


Dr. Betty Johnson is a consultant, executive coach, keynote speaker and university professor. Her academic research includes studies on remote work during the pandemic and how dignity at work influences business outcomes. Johnson founded Bridging the Difference LLC in 2010. Her most recent book is “Making Virtual Work: How to Build Performance and Relationships” (2021). Follow Johnson on LinkedIn and Twitter.  

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