Blue Beyond Consulting

The Empathy Equation

Why leaders need this essential “soft skill” and how to put it into practice with your team.

Joan, a central member of your marketing team, is uncharacteristically struggling. Long respected as a top contributor, recently she’s been late for meetings, visibly distracted, and less engaged during team discussions. Even her once stellar reports feel sloppy and “phoned in.” Frustrated, you prepare to provide Joan with some very direct feedback during her next one-on-one. She is letting you and the team down and it’s time to get her back on track.

But wait. Before you schedule that feedback session, let’s pause to consider an important question: how much do you actually know about Joan and her life outside of the office? Do your assumptions about her performance problems shift if you learn:

  • She’s become a full-time caregiver to an elderly parent 
  • Her partner was recently laid off
  • She’s navigating a medical diagnosis 
  • Her teenager is struggling with addiction 

If your answer is yes, your empathy muscle is ready to be engaged. Rather than rushing to conclusions, (e.g., Joan’s not committed to her job and is probably interviewing), consider adopting a more curious mindset and applying the most respectful interpretation (MRI) of the situation. In other words, what is the most positive way to view this situation when you’re not sure of the other person’s intent or motives? The fact is, you don’t yet know the reason behind Joan’s declining performance, but if you approach the situation using MRI, then you will be more likely to build trust and identify solutions that benefit you, Joan and the team.  



How empathy drives culture

As a people leader, you likely invest time and energy into your professional development. Honing skills like critical thinking, communication, and problem solving is time well spent. In addition to these core leadership abilities, one of the most impactful – and sometimes underrated – skills you can cultivate is the one that unites us as humans: empathy.

Empathy is simply defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It’s a skill that most of us use in our daily lives as we interact with friends and family, but it sometimes gets checked at the workplace door under the guise of behaving “professionally.” This would be fine if we only interacted with machines all day. But since most of us work with other humans in some capacity, research indicates that empathy is vital to achieving a healthy, supportive workplace culture. 



What does the data tell us?

2018  survey by State of Workplace Empathy revealed that 96% of respondents ranked empathy as an important company culture trait, yet, 92% strongly believe that empathy remains undervalued. Another study by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCI)  reports that managers who show higher levels of empathy toward their team are viewed as better performers by their bosses. Similarly, a study by research firm DDI found that empathy is one of the most important drivers of overall performance among people managers. Unfortunately, that same study found that only 40% of business leaders exhibit empathy proficiency, meaning many of us have some work to do.  



The hard truth about soft skills

In some circles, empathy still gets skewed as a soft skill, meaning it’s a “nice to have” not a necessity. A recent Catalyst study disagrees, asserting that organizations that encourage leaders to cultivate empathy are more likely to drive innovation, boost engagement, retain top talent, and role model diversity, equity and inclusion.

The good news is, learning a soft skill like empathy is anything but hard; you don’t need an advanced degree to become more empathetic. That’s because empathy is both a trait and a skill. Within the empathy spectrum, there are people who are naturally more predisposed to display empathetic responses, but much like a muscle, it’s also a skill that can be trained and strengthened over time. Plus, the more you use it, the more natural it becomes.



The empathy big three

Experts have identified three distinct types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Let’s unpack what each of these looks like:

  • Cognitive empathy involves understanding how the mind of another person functions. It’s the ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes to imagine what the other person might be thinking and feeling, and then respond accordingly. For example, if a well-liked team member turns in their resignation, you might hope to minimize the impact of this news by sending out a quick email and then moving on with business as usual. But, if you pause to ask yourself how your team members might react to this news, you can choose a more empathetic approach; send the email, then set aside 1:1 time to allow people the chance to ask questions and process their feelings.
  • Emotional empathy is when you actually mirror the emotions another person is experiencing. Emotional empathy is on display when we become choked up seeing another person cry. It goes beyond understanding how someone feels and helps you create genuine rapport by climbing into the emotional trenches alongside them. Example: your colleague tells you their pet just died and begins to tear up. Using cognitive empathy, you say: “I’m sorry – this must be very difficult for you.” Using emotional empathy, you say: “I’m sorry to hear about your pet. I know you’re really going to miss him. I’m here if you need to talk.”
  • Compassionate empathy is the most active form of empathy. It involves not only having concern for another person, and sharing their emotional pain, but also taking practical steps to reduce it. For example, one of your team members is upset because they made a significant error on a client deliverable. Acknowledging their feelings is helpful. Even better, model vulnerability by sharing a time in your career when you made a significant mistake – and share how you felt at the time and what you learned from it.



Tips and techniques to put into practice today

Study after study shows that empathy is key to successfully leading individuals, teams, and whole organizations. Here are some practical guidelines to help you lead with empathy and become a more effective leader:  

  • Stay curious. Ask people questions about their experiences and show them you are actively listening. This helps people feel seen and heard.
  • Welcome feedback from those you trust. Building your empathy muscle is a journey and you won’t always get it right. Seek feedback often and be sure to apply it.
  • Avoid a “fix it” mentality. When we are around someone in need, it can be easy for us to want to jump in and solve the problem. Try to reserve advice for only when asked, and instead, simply listen and continue to stay curious. Ask, “How can I help?”
  • Explore biases that may be blocking you from treating everyone on your team fairly.
  • Embrace difficult conversations – whether it’s a performance issue, DEI in the workplace, or a personality conflict, learning to resolve challenges is a core leadership skill you will want to master. 

Learning to lead with compassion, empathy and understanding will help you grow your team into a place where everyone can – and wants to – do their best work.



Are you ready to learn more about leading with empathy?