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4 scientific reasons why employees love empathetic leaders

Savvy leaders excel when they display empathy. LaRae Quy explains why.

10 min read


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The FBI had identified Nicholas (not his real name) as a Russian intelligence officer in San Francisco. The Russian government tasked Nicholas to steal classified technology, and my job was to either recruit him to work for the FBI or gather enough evidence to have him declared persona non grata and thrown out of the country.

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FBI agents, like I once was, try to recruit foreign intelligence officers rather than have them deported, because their cooperation can help us pinpoint exactly what their intelligence service (in this case, Russia) wants to steal. So you can imagine how pumped I got when I learned from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit that empathy skills help a person read the mind of others, which came in mighty handy with a job like mine. 

I dug out my fake ID and went undercover to a conference I knew Nicholas planned to attend. A fast and strategic maneuver on my part placed me in the empty chair next to him. We started up a conversation, and I learned Nicholas drew cartoons and sent them home to his 6-year-old son, who remained in Moscow. 

Tapping knowledge for empathy

Empathy worked two ways for me. First, it helped me understand Nicholas’ thoughts and point of view. It allowed me to ask myself, “What would I be thinking or feeling if I were him right now?”

Second, it let me express my concern and inquire about his worries. As I listened to Nicholas respond to my questions, I better understood the stress he was under at work and the added stress of being separated from his son. 

Why you need empathy even if you’re not a spy

The reason leaders need to cultivate empathy skills today is the same reason I needed empathy to recruit Nicholas — people are experiencing multiple kinds of stress, whether it’s from the pandemic, the economy or America’s divided political landscape. 

A recent study revealed that 65.9% of people report higher stress levels, and 57.2% report higher anxiety levels, since the COVID-19 outbreak. Here are the areas of most concern:

  • COVID-19 and related health issues.
  • Financial pressure.
  • Being stuck at home.
  • Loneliness/social isolation.
  • Fears about job security.

People are at a breaking point. Their worries and anxiety spill over and affect their performance at work; alternately, work becomes the reason for much of their stress, affecting their personal life. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Research at the University of Illinois found when employees receive rude emails at work, it creates negativity that they often can’t leave at the office. Another study at Carleton University found when people experience incivility at work, they tend to feel less capable in their domestic duties. Yet another study at Georgetown University found rising workplace incivility reduces collaboration and makes it less likely that employees will help each other. The result is increased turnover and poor morale.

Leaders unsure how to be empathetic

Leaders have a fast-growing list of requirements, so it should be no surprise that they often feel uncertain about how they should lead their teams. Add to that the staggering weight of stress and anxiety. Employees need empathetic leaders to connect with them in a meaningful way.

Many leaders are unsure of how empathy works in practice. I grew up in a world skeptical of a touchy-feely approach to leadership, but empathy is more than empty platitudes to make people feel better. It’s connecting with others in an authentic and genuine manner.

Four scientific reasons show why empathy is the most important leadership skill.

1. Put your brain to work

Research has shown that empathy is not a soft skill but a response based on neurobiology. An MRI can demonstrate how a neural relay mechanism in the brain allows empathetic individuals to unconsciously mimic the postures, mannerisms and facial expressions of others to a greater degree than those who are not empathetic. 

Studies also demonstrate when people unconsciously mimic the actions and facial expressions of others, their brains mirror the neural circuits of the other person that produce expressions of joy, disgust, anger, pain and other emotions. Observers feel what others feel to a certain degree. “I feel your pain” is more than an empty phrase. 

Racial, ethnic, religious and physical differences can inhibit empathy. Important research has demonstrated that the capacity to see a person’s situation from their point of view can overcome unintentional bias. Bottom line: When we value dissimilar people, we suddenly see hidden similarities.

This is good news for people who aren’t sure how to go about the business of being empathetic. Let your brain do the work for you, because mirroring the body language of others is hardwired into our brain! It’s the process by which we switch our body posture to match that of the other person — we mirror the person’s nonverbal behavior and signal that we are connected and engaged.

How to make it work for you: Mirror neurons in your brain fire when you see an emotion expressed on another person’s face. Mirroring their facial expressions and body positions instantly communicates empathy and signals that you understand their feelings. Take those feelings into account as you decide how to respond. It’s your mirror neurons that give you the capacity to experience the joys and sorrows of others and to connect with them on an emotional level.

2. Trigger your curiosity

To become naturally empathic, put something to use that is already in your toolkit — curiosity! As a leader, you are already curious about making the work environment more collaborative. You care about efficiency and results.

If you are a know-it-all, you don’t have a clue about how to be a human. Curiosity and the desire to continually improve and do better are the marks of successful people. They are rarely satisfied with the status quo and welcome new information. Successful people understand that it’s all about investing in the most crucial person in your life — yourself. 

But it’s a fine line, because curious people are not self-centered. They can set themselves aside long enough to learn something new about the people around them. They ask questions, listen and gain unique insight. This takes humility, because humility acknowledges that they don’t know, and that leads to empathy and compassion. 

Research suggests that the expression “thirst for knowledge” has roots in neuroscience because the acquisition of information fires up the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reward and value. When we are most curious, we can better remember more information, not just the answers to the question.

How to make it work for you: Ask yourself how curious you are about your colleagues. Are you aware of their stresses and struggles? Do you care? Are you motivated to find out more? If not, why?

Then, ask your team how curious they are about the people reporting to them and what they know about their team’s  individual stresses and struggles. Do they care? Are they motivated to find out? If not, then why are they in a leadership position? 

Curiosity is a powerful leadership tool. First, teach yourself to be curious, and then teach your team. 

3. Create a positive environment 

When burnout has reared its ugly head in so many professions, empathy skills can counter many of those soul-sucking emotions because it creates a positive environment. 

Empathetic leaders don’t need a set of pom poms and a blow horn to promote positivity. Positive empathy is a response that focuses on an individual’s unspoken desire for something different in their life that will, presumably, lead to a better one. 

No avuncular clucks or sympathetic tut-tuts are required. Instead, two things are needed: first, an honest evaluation of strengths, weaknesses and goals; and, second, acknowledgment of those revelations.

Empathy is more than a feel-good approach. A new study found that empathy has significant positive effects in three key areas:

  • Innovation. When people reported that they had empathetic leaders, 61% said they were more likely to be innovative.
  • Engagement. 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders also indicated they were more engaged and they flourished in the workplace.
  • Reduced burnout. 54% of women of color indicated that lack of senior leader empathy significantly predicted general workplace burnout. This relationship was also tested with men of color, white women and white men, but for these groups, senior leadership empathy was not a significant predictor of general workplace burnout. 

How to make it work for you: Life circumstances have changed for everyone. You need to recognize and understand those changes. 

Start meetings with personal check-ins.

Ask about health and family.

Pay attention and nod.

Acknowledge specific contributions to their work.

Ask what they need to successfully do their job.

Express concern for their wellbeing.

4. Show them you care

If you list everyone you admire, chances are good that your admiration is based on more than just performance. Respect requires that people have reached you at an emotional level.

Empathy means getting in the emotional dirt with other people. You allow their experiences to resonate with your own and respond appropriately. You might offer advice, but empathy requires you wait for the right time to add your two cents. It means you can get outside of yourself long enough to be mindful of how they feel and allow them space to express it.

When you show people you care, it means you’re compassionate. This does not mean you’re a wimp or a doormat that can be walked over. Mentally tough people understand how to maintain the tension between compassion and great ambition for themselves and others. 

Empathy skills contribute to positive relationships that drive results. It’s not a new skill, but it has reached a new level of importance in today’s world. Science reinforces that empathy is the leadership competency that is needed to develop the future of work.

How to make it work for you: You don’t have to be an expert in mental health to demonstrate you care and pay attention. The place to start is to shut up and listen. It’s the hardest but also the most important. You can’t experience someone else’s life if you’re knee-deep in your own. Let them talk and put aside what is going on in your life. Allow them a chance to explain how they feel. You can improve all your relationships if you wait a few seconds before you take over the conversation.

LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness
Assessment. Quy’s new book is
“Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.


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