Aug 3, 2021 | Empathy, Leadership

Aug 3, 2021 | Empathy, Leadership

The first indications of a lack of empathy in leadership may lie in the problems the leader is regularly faced with. If one or more of the following issues seems familiar, a solution may be found in a more empathic approach:

1. Miscommunications

It may seem obvious, but miscommunicating information will not often lead to the desired response. Before delivery, a leader needs to consider how communication will be received and understood. An empathic leader will tailor messages appropriately to maintain clarity and avoid the receiver “getting the wrong end of the stick.”

Communication must work both ways. Listening is fundamental to leadership (LLopis, 2013) and provides the leader an opportunity to learn more about an individual. A leader must seek to understand, while ensuring those they lead feel understood.

Mutual understanding is enhanced through regular rather than rare communication, since this allows knowledge of one another to grow and progress. One symptom of miscommunication can be a poor relationship. Without empathy, what a leader sees as helpful feedback may be received as criticism or even disdain. Miscommunications like this will push relationships in the wrong direction.

2. Poor Relationships

If a leader cannot empathise with the people that they lead, their relationships will suffer. An empathic leader needs to get to know and understand who a person really is, and this can only be achieved through a close relationship. Furthermore, surveys regularly show that in the workplace, relationships are valued more than wages (Mitchell, 2014) and this has implications for recruitment and retention.

Leaders often try to take a shortcut to knowing a person by using personality profiling or psychometric tests. Getting to know people in a social way challenges the time and emotional energy of leaders, but the rewards appear to outweigh these costs. Knowledge elicits understanding and maintains close relationships. The alternative is distant or poor relationships, which will have dire consequences for commitment, trust, and respect. Furthermore, they damage the climate.

3. Toxic Climates

When relationships break down or are distant, behaviour and emotions are less predictable. As human beings, we tend to fear the unknown. This leaves people guessing what a leader wants from them and wearing a heavy mask that suits their imagined role. People are also less likely to offer their ideas, which inhibits the creativity of the group.

The fear of the unknown works both ways. A leader becomes paranoid about how they are perceived, and this breeds insecurity. An insecure leader will be more likely to focus on their own needs. Hence, a lack of empathy in a climate brings a lack of care.

Leaders who do not bother to get to know their people will never know their problems, many of which will impact performance, as well as their wellbeing. All considered, a toxic climate is an unsafe one. The spiral is downward, and the performance of all parties will suffer. People excel in climates of safety, not climates of fear (Tynan, 2021).

It is no wonder that empathy now features on job postings for leaders across industries. From sport to medicine, and from politics to business, leadership will suffer due to a lack of it. Leadership can pose a variety of problems that set a team or organization on a negative path. Understanding that a more empathic approach offers a solution is the first step on the road to positive change.


Mitchell, L. (2014). Good relationships at work more important than salary, survey finds | HRZone. Retrieved March 8, 2021, from HR Zone

LLopis, G. (2013). 6 Ways Effective Listening Can Make You A Better Leader. Retrieved March 8, 2021, from Forbes

Tynan, E. (2021). Signs You’re in a Toxic Work Environment — and How to Handle It. Retrieved March 8, 2021, from Top Resume


This article first appeared at Psychology Today. See original publication here


U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal

reminds us that once we understand the importance of empathy in leadership, we have to have the discipline to maintain it.

Click on the play button to watch the video.

U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal

reminds us that once we understand the importance of empathy in leadership, we have to have the discipline to maintain it. Click on the play button to watch the video.

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