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Empathetic leadership: A CIO’s perspective

Prashanti Aduma

Chief Information Officer

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Empathetic leadership is a leadership style that doesn’t get much press, yet is one of the most effective and valuable management techniques you can employ. Not only is it good for the business, driving lower turnover rate and an increase in productivity, but it also drives innovation.

In this article, I’ll explain what exactly empathetic leadership is, its importance in your organization, learnings from my own experiences, and how you can work it into your own management style.

What is empathetic leadership?

We are all human beings that deserve (at the very least) basic levels of consideration and care from the people around us. This is no different in the workplace.

An empathetic leadership style starts with the recognition that your employees have worth—the belief that your employees have good ideas and valuable skills, and are worthy of your respect.

To be an empathetic and effective leader, you have to make an effort to connect with your team on a human level and be in tune with the needs of others. The key factors are providing a psychological safe environment where employees have freedom to speak their mind, and you as a leader developing listening skills, communicating with honesty, clarity and respect. Seeing things from a different perspective—from their perspective—is the foundation of this management style.

The benefits of empathy in the remote/hybrid workplace

Empathy as a leadership skill has more going for it than simply making people feel good (although that is important, too). It has tangible positive effects on the quality of the team’s work and, by extension, the profitability of the business.

Increases team creativity

As humans, we often make snap judgments about people, which can unintentionally exclude different perspectives from your team—perspectives that would be valuable to your overall efforts. Empathetic leadership helps remove judgment and bias from the workplace.

Leaders who work on developing their emotional intelligence, empathy, and communication skills will reap the benefits in many ways. For example, you’ll see an improvement in the amount of finesse and creativity your team brings to the table. They’ll feel comfortable voicing their opinions and taking sensible risks, which can be a catalyst for new initiatives and ideas.

Motivates your team to go the extra mile

There are plenty of tips to improve customer retention, but it’s worth remembering that happy and motivated employees are one of the main drivers behind good customer service. An empathetic workplace will help your team feel valued, which will motivate them to do their best in every task—even the minor ones.

Employees are more driven to prioritize the business' well-being

In my experience, teams who have empathetic leaders are more likely to accomplish great things for the business and sustain that effort over time. They will be better motivated to perform and take great pride in both their work and their accomplishments as a team.

✨ Interested in learnings from more CIOs?

Hear from 12 CIOs across different industries in the CIO Playbook.

Challenges of empathetic leadership

It’s not easy to consistently practice empathetic leadership (otherwise everybody would be doing it), and you won’t get it right 100% of the time. But I hope that being aware of the challenges will help you to think about issues ahead of time and consider how you will approach them.

Language or cultural differences

The workplace is now global. Remote work and better communications technology has made it possible to build teams of professionals from all over the world. And even before remote work, businesses would send employees to work in different countries on either a short- or long-term basis.

It’s important to be mindful of the differences between cultures when you work. Turns of phrase, cultural values, and name pronunciations can be potentially sensitive topics with your employees—even those from ostensibly similar backgrounds to your own. You don’t know everything about an employee’s history, and so you don’t know what could potentially be a triggering issue.

Do your best to be aware and accommodating to the feelings of others, but acknowledge (both to your team and to yourself) that you will eventually make mistakes, and that those mistakes aren’t borne from a lack of empathy. What matters is that you’re willing to accept feedback and make corrections.

Building trust remotely

Strong relationships don’t develop overnight, especially when you’re working with multiple remote teams. Trust needs to be built over time, and it takes longer to build if you’re not face to face with a person and can read their body language.

When your only communications with a person are done through a camera and a keyboard, it becomes more important than ever to build trust through your actions. For example, listening, and then taking action on what they tell you. Expressing confidence in their skills by not micromanaging. Coaching and nurturing people instead of simply issuing orders.

These actions will do a lot to help your team build trust in you, even from a distance.

Being too empathetic

One potential downside to being an empathetic leader is keeping a proper distance. If you build a strong relationship with one team member, are you accidentally alienating the rest of the team? If you try to project an image of being “just one of the team,” how will that affect the team dynamic moving forward if you need to make difficult or unpopular decisions?

Yes, you need to build a bond with your team, but only to a point. A good leader is aware of the boundaries of the work relationship and mindful of the responsibilities of their role. An empathetic leader should not lose focus on being a visionary; on being able to drive company objectives while at the same time ensuring the team is rallying behind the vision with trust and motivation. One can only achieve this by connecting each employee's contribution to the bigger picture, investing in employees’ growth, acknowledging and appreciating employee’s contributions, providing a psychologically safe environment to present and challenge ideas.

Empathetic leadership: Examples of how to do it

Build trust with your teams

Building trust is critical to making empathetic leadership work. Contrary to popular belief, team trust is not built through team building exercises and “trust falls” and holding hands while singing songs. Nor does it come with the position of leadership like a set of keys comes with a car.

Trust is earned over time. You do it by making sure people feel heard. You accumulate it over the course of multiple working sessions and solving problems together. You make the team stronger and more cohesive by listening to their opinions and giving credit where credit is due.

Always encourage two-way communication or input

Empathetic business leaders understand that to be a better leader, you must continuously promote two-way communication and employee engagement. Employees need to feel that they can approach you with anything—feedback, opinions, mental health concerns, etc.

Two-way communication is especially critical for teams in a hybrid working environment, where you can’t always speak face to face. Team members working outside the office may feel especially hesitant to voice their opinions, so make sure they know their point of view is welcome and necessary.

You have to be close to the problem and to your team, but also a few steps ahead

Empathetic leadership is a balancing act. While you need to be close to the problem you're working on and work collaboratively with your team, you also need to be two to three steps ahead to ensure you’re achieving business objectives.

It’s a delicate balance. Distance yourself too much, and lose perspective of what the team is going through. Be too close, and you risk being so immersed in the day to day to see the bigger picture.

This applies to how you engage with the team, too. It’s important to develop relationships with individual team members and form bonds, but you need to guard against playing favorites and compromising your position of authority.

Schedule regular check-ins

No matter how big your company is, it’s important to check in on your team and make sure things are going as you hope (and that they’re not suffering burnout). Your direct reports are your responsibility, and it’s important to ensure the people under you are empathetic leaders, too. One way to do this is to make empathy a part of your performance goals to imbue it in your whole organization.

Come up with creative ways to incorporate empathy training in the workplace. Schedule sessions with your team once a week or month to see how they’re practicing empathetic leadership, whether amongst themselves or with their reports.

For example, we have a hybrid team, and we keep in touch with each other on a daily basis using Dialpad as our communications platform. Having a tool like this is important if not everyone is in the office all the time—and one nice thing about Dialpad is that anyone can join a video meeting using iOS, Android, PC, Mac devices, and even web browsers if they don’t want to download anything:

Joining a meeting from the web or your desktop with Dialpad.

Treat your meetups as opportunities to practice active listening—this means using verbal and non-verbal cues to let the other person know you are really paying attention and interested in what they’re saying. It’s an important soft skill that leaders need to develop in order to practice empathy.

It’s also important to let your team know that you’re interested in their development. Show that you take your role as a mentor seriously by playing a key part in helping your staff hone their skills and grow personally and professionally.

Be genuine in your efforts

To make empathetic leadership work, you must take an active and genuine interest in your team members as people. People are smart—they can identify when a manager is being fake.

For example, if your team members are into a particular style of music or like a particular show, you don’t have to pretend to like it, too. Instead, use it as an opportunity to share what you like as well.

Same thing goes for professional matters. If someone on your team is really good at a particular skill that you don’t possess, don’t feign experience or knowledge you don’t have in an effort to gain their respect. Don’t let your ego get the better of you as a leader.

Instead, show that you genuinely respect what they’re bringing to the table—and if those impressive skills align well with a certain project, let them run with it.

As the saying goes, “A family that eats together, stays together.” Dining with your team members (when possible) provides a casual environment for employees and allows them to open up, share bits of their personal lives, and feel comfortable speaking about their life experiences and struggles. This provides a great opportunity to bond with the team at a personal level. This helps build trust, which is the foundation of an empathetic environment.

Achieve effective management with empathetic leadership

I hope this post has given you an idea of how beneficial empathetic leadership can be in energizing a business. It’s a valuable soft skill that can bring immediate value in any situation, and it’s a good idea to start as soon as possible.

You don’t have to overturn the way the entire business operates overnight. You can make small progressive changes to your own management style to start, and eventually build up to more substantial changes involving other managers once you’re in the swing of things.

Customers may come first, but your employees are the core!

As the famous poet Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel."

As your most valuable resource, employees deserve your respect and empathy. Not just because there are strong business benefits, but because it’s the most human thing to do.

Connect your team with Dialpad!

Use Dialpad's cloud communications platform to get your team talking to each other no matter where they are in the world.