What every ethical leader needs to know about empathy

O'Leary looking stupidEMPATHY: “If I’d only known how being nice to customers was going to work so well, I’d have started many years ago.”
Michael O’Leary CEO of Ryanair, 2016

Sadly, his new awareness didn’t lead to sensitive handling of the chaos  a year later caused by his airline’s last minute cancellations. So he and you might well wonder: how important is it for a business leader to show empathy?

There are two ways to answer this perfectly sensible question. The first is the human side; and the second is what I call the hard-nosed reply.

The human side suggests as a leader you need empathy to help you build essential relationships at work. Only with effective relationships can you expect to bring  your vision for the company to life. 

Now for the hard-nosed side of the answer. This refers to the impact a leader with empathy can have on a company’s financial performance. For example:

The 2016 study by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) used a Global Empathy Index to measure how much empathy was happening in a company. It found the top 10 companies in terms of empathy increased in financial value more than twice as much as the bottom 100. Surprising eh? 

Also, what HBR calls high empathy performers generated 50% more earnings  than their less empathic competitors. Or putting it slightly differently, firms with higher empathy scores correlated strongly (80%) with high performers.

explains what is empathySuccessful ethical leaders do a good job of conveying empathy. This partly explains their success—whether you define this in financial or non-financial ways. Let’s take a closer look at this empathy thing in action. 

Deconstructing Empathy

It’s almost impossible to untangle ethics from empathy. Describing what makes an ethical leader means you are talking about someone who also conveys empathy.

Let’s start the de-construction with ethical issues. At some time in their business life most responsible leaders find themselves wrestling with ethical issues. It could be bad things happening down the supply chain. Or employees whose behaviour undermines the firm’s core values.

Or it might be the challenge of  “doing what’s right”. This may not be at all obvious at first and the smart business leader therefore stays ready to hear different perspectives.

Also the leader takes care to avoid punishing those who express challenging views.  Such opinions surface due to a readiness to listen, to hear what others have to say despite disagreeing with them.  Achieving a diversity of views can be as important to company success as diversity of employment. 

Empathy is notoriously hard to measure convincingly. And because it’s not obviously connected to a company’s bottom line even a responsible leader may not feel on safe ground talking about it. Yet empathy can be measured–see box on the right suggesting some ways.

And like engagement, empathy is a proven critical factor behind leadership success in business. Why?  No leader enjoys being told they’re wrong. Which is why showing empathy is seldom as easy as it appears

Major current influences on how one leads in business include teams, globalisation and the need to retain talent. Yet all three require the leader to do far more than just talk the talk. They requires leaders to take into account others’ feelings when making decisions.

Many corporate environments do the reverse. They short-circuit our natural capacity for cooperation and compassion. Instead much of business promotes paranoia, cynicism and self-interest. The space for empathy remains small.

If you’re someone who lives life as a zero sum game—”if I win you must lose. “That empathy actually produces great business results seems counter intuitive  As one critic of the way so many businesses operate argues:

“In business we give bonuses to people who gained when others sacrificed.”
Simon Sinek, author   

The ethical leader does more than spout platitudes about “doing what’s right” or “I strongly believe in our values.”

Instead, an ethical leader pays close attention to how others are being, not just doing. It is hardly surprising an attention focusing discipline such as “mindfulness” appears to be making a serious impact in many parts of business.

For example, everyday gestures, such as holding an elevator door open for others or refilling the coffee machine can seem irrelevant to the wider business goals of success. Yet neuroscience reveals how even small acts of kindness release a tiny shot of feel-good oxytocin. Feed people with oxygtocin and you have a sure way to gain friends and influence people.         

Research also suggests around half of all practising mangers are ineffective. In which case it’s a smart move to find out what skills really matter. One of them turns out to be the ability to convey empathy.

“Our results reveal that empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.”
W. Gentry et al, Empathy in the Workplace

Empathy generates an interest in and appreciation of others. It paves the way to more productive working relationships. For the ethical leader empathy is therefore more than just a tool of management to be learned alongside other techniques.

It is an important way of being, it helps them work across organisational and even cultural boundaries. As mentioned earlier, empathy helps to understand people with different perspectives and experiences.

“Let’s cut to chase” you may well be muttering by now!  What are some simple ways for an ethical leader can show empathy in business:

Lilsts 10 ways to show empathy as a leader

Partly adapted from B Martinuzzi: What’s empathy got to do with it?, Mind Tools




  1. C. Cherniss The Business Case for Emotional Intelligence, Consortium for research in emotional intelligence, 1999
  2. B. Parmar, The Most Empathetic Companies, HBR December 2016
  3. S. Levitt, Why the Empathetic Leader Is the Best Leader, Success Magazine, March 15, 2017
  4. W. Gentry et al, Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership, Centre for Creative Leadership 2007
  5. J. Meister, Future Of Work: Mindfulness As A Leadership Practice, Forbes, April 27th 2015
  6. Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace: The Mindfulness Initiative Private Sector Working Group, 2016
  7. C. Chi, 7 Books to help you develop more empathy, Hub Spot

    1) Mindsight: Transform Your Brain with the New Science of Empathy

    2) The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society

    3) Well-Designed: How to Use How to Use Empathy to Create Products People

    4) Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy

    5) The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life’s Most Essential Skill

    6) Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It

    7) Empathy


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