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Why Empathy is Important in Leadership

It’s here! The first instalment of our 7 Deadly Skills, where we’ll be covering Zest’s top skills that will help you develop yourself, your leadership skills and your business.

This time we’ll be covering empathy – a crucial skill all leaders have that honestly gets overlooked in our opinion.

Read on to discover why we think empathy is important enough to have made this list and how you can work on becoming a more empathetic leader yourself.

The Difference Between Sympathy & Empathy

So, what is empathy? Often when we ask this question we get the wrong answer. That’s because for a lot of people the lines between sympathy and empathy seem to get a little blurred.

Let’s take a minute to look at the difference. Sympathy brings with it a lot of judgement. It’s all about viewing how someone is feeling from your own perspective, and often brings with it unwarranted advice and guidance. The result? A sense of pity and suppressed emotions that might just end up boiling over. Empathy is the opposite of that.

A sympathetic response: I know how you feel, poor you.

An empathetic response: I understand what you’re feeling, that must be really hard.

When you think about empathy, an image of ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’ might be the first thing that springs to mind – and that does ring true. However, the first step towards projecting empathy to others involves having empathy for yourself. This can be harder than you’d think – but don’t worry, we’ll talk you through the steps to get there.

Empathy’s Role in the Workplace

Empathy’s importance in the workplace is becoming more and more important as time goes on. Empathy makes up the very core of creating a work environment that’s caring and supportive – and in today’s fast-paced, ever-changing role this is crucial for a business to grow and thrive.

If you want to look at it from a business point of view, empathetic leadership in the workplace will lead to improved job performance. It helps to facilitate effective communication and will also contribute towards you retaining key members of staff. If you’re practising empathy with your team, you’ll be able to identify exactly what they need to succeed whilst strengthening your relationships and building trust to boot.

But really, practising empathy isn’t just about helping you hike those sales figures up another notch. At the end of the day, a leader without empathy won’t understand what’s going on with themselves and those around them. The knock-on effect of that: we’re already finding ourselves in a growing mental health crisis – and these issues going unaddressed at work is only going to normalise that.

How to Be an Empathetic Leader

Some of us are lucky enough to be natural empaths, which is an amazing trait to have. For others, it’s definitely something you can learn (or something Zest can teach you!) but it is going to take work. Here are a few steps to get you started, but remember this is just the tip of the iceberg:

Talk Openly

Empathy is all about communicating, so talking openly and honestly is a great way to start building trust with your team. Make sure your management team are clued in on just how important empathy is in the workplace – a caring and understanding workplace is more and more important in this day and age.

A team that feels they can come to their manager’s about anything is going to be more loyal whilst also highlighting any training and development needs. Offering your time and attention to others within the business is a great first step to creating an empathetic workplace.

Focus on Listening

Active listening is a skill, we all have ears but that doesn’t mean we’re all listening to what matters. For your business to be successful, both you and your management team must be good listeners. It’s important that the people around you feel they’ve been heard when they come to you with concerns and problems.

This means it’s no good just listening to the words, you need to be picking up on the meaning behind them. Pay close attention to nonverbal cues, like tone, facial expressions and gestures. By paying close attention in this way you’ll pick up far more and be able to react appropriately.

A team with a good listener at the helm is going to build trust and grow at a much quicker pace than one without.

Offer Genuine Support

In our experience, leaders are great about getting stuff done. You make that to-do list every morning and, by the end of the day, those checkboxes have all got a tick by them. But leading with empathy isn’t always about coming up with a battle plan and tackling it yourself head-on.

Sometimes a non-action is just as impactful. That’s why the listing stage is so crucial when it comes to empathy. When someone comes to you with an issue, take the time to sit back and consider what the next best steps are.

Is there something you can physically do to help them? Or, is talking it through and showing you’re there already the right thing? Your ability to pick up on the best way to guide your team is going to be your gateway to successful leadership. Instead of picking up your tools and fixing the problem for them, try to offer genuine guidance and solutions so they can try and help themselves. After all, this is only going to help them grow, which will have longer-term benefits for everyone.


Empathy isn’t a thing you can do once and move on, it takes constant and consistent action that you’ll need to keep working on.

Try to consciously make the effort to act with empathy every day, and make sure the rest of your leadership team are doing the same. This isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight, so keep on top of it. This might involve regular workshops, training or even regular 1:1 meetings that offer an open safe space for people to speak up.

Now you have our top tips, so what should you be doing now? Well, now’s the time to act. As we say goodbye to traditional ways of working that no longer serve the world, now’s the time to re-design workplace culture with empathy at its core. This isn’t a choice anymore, but a necessity.

We’ve mentioned a few times already that practising empathy starts with being empathetic to yourself. This needs practice, and for some will be a lengthy process, so don’t be disheartened if it takes some time.

It’s also important to remember that being empathetic in isolation can be extremely draining, so to strike a balance you should definitely give it a shoulder to lean on. This could be in the form of a focus or discipline, anything that ensures your head is helping out the heart every now and again will work well. Feeling a little overwhelmed? We wouldn’t blame you, empathy made our 7 Deadly Skills list for a reason – it’s not meant to be easy!

For information about how Zest can help transform how you and your team embrace empathy, drop an email to

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