I’m a Good Leader! But Does Your Team Agree? How to Create an Empathetic Workplace


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Companies today face incredible challenges, and balancing factors like talent shortages, political debates, and increasing inflation coupled with the demand for better benefits is hard. Having empathy for an employee and providing an empathetic workplace — one that supports employee needs in such a divisive environment — is critical. Leadership is more than just being decisive, tough, confident or strong. A word many wouldn’t instantly apply to leadership is “empathy,” and yet, it is one of the most critical defining factors between successful leaders and those just making the grade.

Studies indicate that empathetic qualities in a leader directly impact business objectives, creating a better level of communication, trust, and sense of worth for employees. The problem is that many CEOs don’t realize they’re not being empathetic.

The 2023 State of Workplace Empathy Report paints a picture of this. The survey of 1,000 people found that 78% of employees believed they worked in an empathetic workplace in 2018, but by 2023, that figure had dropped to just 66%. More impactfully, 67% of CEOS believe they are more empathetic now than they were before the pandemic (but only 59% of employees believe that).

Leaders are expected to bear responsibility for their organizations. Business, especially, is often cast as a high-stakes environment where results matter and feelings get pushed to the back—reserved for more personal pursuits.

Related: Why Empathetic Leadership Is More Important Than Ever

The importance of empathy in leadership

As the CEO of Carbliss, I have grown quickly, and to stay effective, I fully believe in finding balance. A personal level of understanding is necessary to find success in business and in life.

That’s where empathy comes into the picture. To be an empathetic leader means recognizing that leadership isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach; it’s about genuinely understanding your team members’ individual challenges, motivations, and emotions.

Traditional leadership might rely on the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I believe in what I call the Platinum Rule — “Do unto others as they would want done unto them.” That’s empathetic leadership.

Shift your leadership to other-centric

As a leader, shifting your perspective from a self-centered to an other-centric model is critical. Instead of focusing solely on how I want things done, I focus more on tuning into my teams’ unique perspectives and leading from that place of understanding.

From a personal perspective, this did not happen overnight. One of my earliest leadership positions came when I was working at a cheese factory. Management fast-tracked me into a technical lead role because my military background equated to solid leadership abilities.

It’s pretty cliché, but my experience with leadership in the military mostly involved shouting and push-ups, and that’s the model I adopted as a leader. When mistakes happened, they were corrected with harsh words and brisk demonstrations of the “right way” to do it.

My tactics worked. The people I yelled at fixed their mistakes and went back to work…for about 20 minutes. The short-lived results mirrored my leadership style – efficient but soulless.

That all changed the first time I picked up Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which teaches what I believe is the single most crucial skill for effective leadership: empathy.

Applying empathy in the way you work and lead today requires a careful level of oversight into how you are achieving tasks as well as how you can improve those methods based on empathy. Here are 5 tactics to get you started.

Related: How to Be the Empathetic Leader Your Team Needs

1. Eliminate the self-pity excuse

If a colleague or member of your staff continues to underperform and offer excuses, understand your leadership role in the situation. It’s not about indulging self-pity or endorsing a culture of victimhood—that’s sympathy in disguise, and it misses the mark.

True empathy is the mixture of unfiltered honesty with a deep understanding of an individual’s narrative, recognizing how their experiences inform their worldview. This distinction is crucial. It also results in the ability to have deeper, more adult conversations with everyone on the team.

Related: What is an Empathetic Leader? (Plus 3 Tips on How to Become One)

2. Have conversations

At Carbliss, we directly and with mature dialogue have conversations when concerns occur. For example, if someone’s getting a little too liberal with the expense account, instead of handing down draconian rules from on high, we have a conversation like adults. There’s no need to belabor the point.

For example, to do this, consider a direct question such as: “Today you did XYZ. This doesn’t seem normal, was this intentional?” If yes, you can address the incorrectness on the spot and move on, if the answer is no, you can be clear in the fact that the continuation of that act will result in a lack of trust so they know what to expect from you if that behavior continues. Set clear expectations with your team so they have parameters within which to excel.

3. Understand the cause

If an individual on your team is normally an A-player, but their performance has declined in recent weeks, give them the benefit of the doubt. Look deeper into the “why” of what happens as they execute their tasks to better understand the implications and to drive effective change. When a mistake gets made, we confront it, we try to understand where everyone involved is coming from, we fix it, and we move on.

4. Build a culture of honesty

If a team member is struggling, it can be tempting to try to make them feel better or over-compensate by allocating their tasks to someone else, hoping it is just a season. This is a short-term solution for long-term issues. Instead, I’m blunt about this topic because it’s true: empathy is honesty in action. I know that if I can approach someone believing they’re striving to do their best for both the company and themselves, I’ve already set the stage for a constructive, solution-focused discussion. After all, nobody tries to screw up. Assume they want to be successful and be honest about your expectations. This will set a clear benchmark for the team member, while your positive intention will affect how you deliver the feedback.

Related: How to Build a Culture of Radical Honesty (and Why You Should)

5. Be transparent

Transparency breeds empathy. Be as transparent as possible so everyone knows where you are coming from. I always aim to be transparent so everyone knows where I’m coming from. And I take the time to learn where they’re coming from. Once we understand each other, everything else falls into place.

For leaders and entrepreneurs looking to adopt empathetic leadership practices, here’s my advice:

  • Get to know the individuals you’re working with on a personal level.
  • Ask your team tough questions and listen – really listen – to their answers.
  • Listen to hear them, not to respond with your own points.
  • Understand the personal stories that influence your team.
  • Above all, infuse every interaction with sincerity.

When you do that, you’re leading with empathy. And an empathetic leader is one who understands how to succeed.

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