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Leaders must practice empathy

Empathy is necessary for leaders today, but unpacking what "empathy" means requires care and attention. Two doctors offer advice on how to think about and apply empathy.

4 min read


Leaders must practice empathy

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Every employee wants to know that the boss supports them. And when times are tough, people expect their leader to do more — demonstrate empathy. It’s a word that has become au courant during our pandemic. Exactly what does empathy mean?

“Empathy is a complex capability enabling individuals to understand and feel the emotional states of others, resulting in compassionate behavior,” writes Dr. Helen Riess, a practicing psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, author of “The Empathy Effect” and the co-founder and chief scientific officer of Emphathetics. “Empathy requires cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and moral capacities to understand and respond to the suffering of others.”

Compassion is the operative principle behind empathy. “Compassion is a tender response to the perception of another’s suffering,” writes Riess. “Compassion cannot exist without empathy, as they are part of the same perception and response continuum that moves human beings from observation to action.”

Empathy can be generative, says Dr. Lloyd Sederer, a former mental health official for New York City and New York state.

“The most effective way I have seen in leaders (and in my personal life) is when the ‘self-empathy’ is in the service of others,” says Sederer, who as a mental health officer and psychiatrist has dealt with trauma issues such as the aftermath of 9/11. “That feeling your own pain, grief, disdain, etc. enables you to better take care of others you care about. It is easier to give than to take — and its reward in improving self-regard is the greatest.”

Riess has developed a model for empathy for physicians to use when meeting with their patients. In an interview with Stephen J. Dubner on the Freakonomics podcast, Riess spelled out her approach, literally.

  • E stands for the notion that “you exist.”
  • M represents the “muscles of facial expression.” As Dubner noted, “They shape our expressions.”
  • P connotes “posture or body language.”
  • A is “affect.”
  • T is for the “tone of voice”
  • H stands for “hearing the entire patient” — that is, recognizing the patient is more than a sum of symptoms but also a human being.
  • Y stands for “your response.”

As Riess explains: “’Your response’ is your feeling of being with that person, because most feelings are mutual. And if you’re feeling good after an interaction, chances are the other person is, too.”

But if a physician is feeling that things did not go so well, they can do a self-check by asking “Was I abrupt? Did I seem rushed? Did I cut the person off? Did I not answer their questions?” The challenge is to act on those feelings and make corrections.

Applying the empathy model

This empathy model, as well as its practice, can have impact beyond health care. For leaders, empathy is felt but it is also expressed toward others. Now at a time when employees are feeling stressed, a leader who takes a holistic view will connect and engage more effectively. Following Riess’ model, a leader can:

  • Recognize employees as people with lives outside of work.
  • Relax your facial muscles when listening.
  • Modulate your tone of voice to engage interest.
  • Respond to people where they are now, especially now in times of stress. Understand that people are working full tilt but also working from home. Many have child-care issues with kids going to school virtually. The boundary lines between office and home have been erased.

Need for gratitude

Inherent in the practice of empathy is also a sense of personal shortcoming. Even the best leaders can be abrupt as well as short. They may even leave an employee feeling less than appreciated because they were too critical or too demanding. Constructive criticism is essential to professional growth, but when it’s made personal and overly harsh, it may have the opposite effect.

When this occurs, leaders need to show empathy for themselves; after all, they are feeling stressed, too. “I am a great fan of daily gratitude exercise,” Sederer says. “Recording in writing simply the names of at least three people you feel grateful to or simply are grateful they are a part of your life.”

Simply noting their names recalls what they mean to you. Their names, says Sederer, become “like a short prayer.”


John Baldoni is a globally recognized executive coach and leadership educator. ranked John a Top 50 Leadership Expert and Top 100 leadership speaker. Trust Across America awarded John its Lifetime Achievement award for Trust and Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of Top 30 leadership experts. John is the author of 14 books, including GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.

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