Of all the dimensions of emotional intelligence, empathy is the most easily recognized.

For a leader, it doesn’t mean adopting other people’s emotions as one’s own and trying to please everybody.

That would be a nightmare it would make action impossible.

Rather, empathy means thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings — along with other factors — in the process of making intelligent decisions.

Empathy is particularly important today as a component of leadership for at least three reasons: the increasing use of teams, the rapid pace of globalization, and the growing need to retain talent.

A team’s leader must be able to sense and understand the viewpoints of everyone around the table.

That’s exactly what a marketing manager at a large information technology company was able to do when she was appointed to lead a troubled team. The group was in turmoil, overloaded by work and missing deadlines. Tensions were high among the members. Tinkering with procedures was not enough to bring the group together and make it an effective part of the company.

So the manager took several steps. In a series of one-on-one sessions, she took the time in a series to everyone in the group what was frustrating them, how they rated their colleagues, whether they felt they had been ignored. And then she directed the team in a way that brought it together: She encouraged people to speak more openly about their frustrations, and she helped people raise constructive complaints during meetings. 

In short, her empathy allowed her to understand her team’s emotional makeup. The result was not just heightened collaboration among members but also added business, as the team was called on for help by a wider range of internal clients.

Globalization is another reason for the rising importance of empathy for business leaders. Cross-cultural dialogue can easily lead to miscues and misunderstandings. Empathy is an antidote. People who have it are attuned to subtleties in body language; they can hear the message beneath the words being spoken. Beyond that, they have a deep understanding of both the existence and the importance of cultural and ethnic differences.

Finally, empathy plays a key role in the retention of talent, particularly in today’s information economy.

Leaders have always needed empathy to develop and keep good people, but today the stakes are higher.

When good people leave, they take the company’s knowledge with them. That’s where coaching and mentoring come in.

Outstanding coaches and mentors get inside the heads of the people they are helping. They sense how to give effective feedback. They know when to push for better performance and when to hold back.

People wonder how leaders can make hard decisions if they are “feeling” for all the people who will be affected. But leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them; They use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle but important ways.


Excerpt from Daniel Goleman’s book, What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters.

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