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Empathetic Leaders in the Workplace

Updated on May 13, 2013
ChrisMcDade8 profile image

Christine McDade is a Human Resources professional (PHR & SHRM-CP) with over 18 years in the public sector.

Christine McDade is an experienced human resources manager.

A handshake can demonstrate understanding and empathy between two people.
A handshake can demonstrate understanding and empathy between two people. | Source

Empathy: Everyone Needs Some.

In a world of tough economic challenges affecting every sector of business down to households trying to make ends meet, it is worth discussing how important it is to have a little more empathy in the workplace for employees. Years ago, basic workplace needs were sought after by employees who formed unions. The notion of having a safe work environment with a reasonable salary were fought for by Americans who demanded better working conditions.Those same needs are now protected by federal laws. Today, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration ) regulations and the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) provide regulations on how employers run their businesses. Other laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act, as Amended), identify protected classes in the workplace. While these laws are important to the basics of what makes up the problems employees could face in the workplace, it is prudent for leaders to be empathetic to the feelings of their employees to know when there are issues or potential issues on the horizon. Detecting problems while they are still small can ward off major problems for the organization down the road. Being empathic, therefore, can be very beneficial to a supervisor's professional success. And, chances are, everyone needs a little empathy from their supervisor at one time or another.

Understanding emotions is an important part of leading employees.
Understanding emotions is an important part of leading employees. | Source

Empathy vs. Sympathy

What is "empathy" or the meaning of "being empathetic"? People often confuse the term "empathy" with "sympathy", as the two sound very similar. While being sympathetic along with empathetic are effective traits for supervisors to have for others in the workplace, there is reason to understand the difference between the two words.

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, defines the two words as follows:

  • "Sympathy is an extension of empathic concern, or the perception, understanding, and reaction to the distress or need of another human being. This empathic concern is driven by a switch in viewpoint, from a personal perspective to the perspective of another group or individual who is in need. Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but the two terms have distinct origins and meanings. Empathy refers to the understanding and sharing of a specific emotional state with another person. Sympathy, however, does not require the sharing of the same emotional state. Instead, sympathy is a concern for the well-being of another..."
  • "Empathy is distinct from sympathy, pity,and emotional contagion. Sympathy or emphatic concern is the feeling of compassion or concern for another, the wish to see the better off or happier..."

Another way to look at empathy is the acknowledgement of another's emotions without taking that feeling as your own. It is an understanding or appreciation of the emotional state of others. Conversely, sympathy is identifying with the emotion and, perhaps, even taking on that person's emotion. Managers who have the understanding of the emotions can be aware of the situation the employee is experiencing, tell them that he/she understands that emotion, and then give them direction or advice on how to proceed to solve the problem.

Empathy: The Sixth Sense

Sometimes, characters in movies and television shows appear to have that sixth sense, that extraordinary ability to really understand people and situations. One good example is Detective Robert "Bobby" Goren on Law and Order: Criminal Intent who always seemed to uncover pertinent facts of a crime that was committed by having a deep understanding of the people involved and their feelings. Understanding the feelings and empathizing with those feelings enabled him to solve the crime. Supervisors, too, would be able to solve complex workplace problems and prevent major crisis from happening by having a little more of this empathetic approach to how they deal with employees in an organization. Empathy alerts the supervisor to possible trouble ahead. Much like Detective Goren, a supervisor can round up the usual suspects and understand the interpersonal difficulties that exist between them.

Supervisors who are empathetic to their employees can assist them with performance issues being caused by emotions or feelings. By just being sympathetic to employees, supervisors will not do much to help the situation because they will not be able to lead them to a better place or help them to reach a solution to the problem. Supervisors who practice empathy will gain valuable insight to understanding the emotions or feelings that are leading the employees to act or participate in such behavior that is not conducive to the workplace. Disruptive interpersonal behavior at work can be damaging to morale and cause the failure to reach organizational goals and objectives. Having the empathy to understand why the employee is acting in a certain, disruptive matter, will provide information from which to make decisions to assist the employee through whatever issue they are having. This appreciation of the employee's feeling should not be taken as a chance to judge the employee. Rather, this understanding of the emotional state will give the supervisor a chance to assist them with a solution while still holding them accountable for any violations of policies or rules.

Some Final Thoughts on Empathy

Practicing empathy with employees while sorting through some performance issues will lend helpful insight to the supervisor. Successful leaders have found this valuable insight can be gained by spending time with the employee,one on one, and just practicing those very important listening skills. When employees realize that their leadership is empathetic, they are likely to build a better relationship that is founded on trust. Leaders who practice an empathetic approach will likely have a better understanding of the employee's concerns and can guide them through difficult performance issues to a successful experience in the organization.

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    • ChrisMcDade8 profile image

      Christine McDade 5 years ago from Southwest Florida


    • Funom Makama 3 profile image

      Funom Theophilus Makama 5 years ago from Europe

      This is a fantastic Hub, engaging from start to finish and definitely voted up.

    • ChrisMcDade8 profile image

      Christine McDade 5 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Thanks for the comment. As I wrote this article I am reminded of its importance in what I do everyday in my own job as well. Have a great day.

    • Written Up profile image

      Written Up 5 years ago from Oklahoma City, OK

      This is a great reminder for me to have more empathy for others in the workplace. Love your photo.