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Empathic Leadership

By Andrew McNeil, Leadership Consultant, Author, Mindfulness Teacher & co-founder of LX Leaders


Andrew McNeillEmpathy isn’t for the faint hearted. Neuroscientists have discovered that when they scan the brains of people who are listening and empathising, the same parts of their brain light up as the person who is explaining the situation.  It seems truly remarkable to me that over time humans have evolved to be able to feel the feelings others are experiencing.

One might think that’s all a bit much and something to be avoided, but there must be a reason for it, right? Evolution doesn’t generally throw up things without a purpose. One of the reasons for the success of our species is that we are social animals, we can work collectively, and empathy helps us to build trust and bonds with other humans. In this way our “tribe” gets stronger and it enables us to survive and thrive.

Fascinating (well it is to me), but what has this got to do with leadership?

In my experience the very same dynamics are being played out in the workplace; in every team, business, government department, organisation and charity. People have an innate need to belong to a group. To be heard, to feel like they are being listened to and respected. If this is denied to us, we can feel dejected, isolated and demotivated.

The capacity of a leader to listen and empathise with a member of a team can be a complete game changer. Empathy is the capacity to sense, to feel what another person is feeling. To be the person who ‘gets it’ – you can literally feel what another person is feeling. When I have had this experience, it is fundamentally different from sympathy or understanding.  I can rationally understand that something is difficult, but if I feel the difficulty I am really connected to the person who is struggling. This helps me to connect with the individual, deeply understand the issue and, if necessary, to work with them to solve it.

This capacity to empathise with our teams and peers has a number of benefits. I talk a lot about trust batteries. The idea being that when we join a new organisation we have a level of trust and with each interaction with our boss, or other leaders in the business, that level of trust either increases or decreases. A poor interaction may not immediately result in a person moving on, but when the trust is irrevocably damaged it can result in poor motivation, distraction and eventually that individual leaving the employer.  However, positive interactions can have the opposite effect. Our trust grows, as does our sense of safety, belonging, motivation and commitment.

Another core benefit from an empathic leadership approach, is the development of psychological safety. For me, this idea is best illustrated by the work done by Google through  their ‘Project Aristotle’. They were wanting to understand why some teams outperformed others. That’s one of the reasons I love this story. They weren’t focussing on staff wellbeing or retention. It was performance. They tested whether this could be because some teams had similar character traits ie were extrovert or introvert…nope. They looked at whether it could be because the high performing leaders had 6 figure bosses…nope. They kept searching and couldn’t find the answer, until they realised it was the teams where people felt psychologically safe that were outperforming the others. They measured this by the number of voices that were heard in a room. Where more voices were heard there was psychological safety, where they were dominated by one voice…not so much.

When I first heard this, it seemed self-evident. As a senior leader of very large complex programmes, I can’t see everything that is going on at the point of delivery. I rely on my team to flag the risks and the opportunities. If people feel that they won’t, or may not be listened to, or even worse, not taken seriously they won’t speak up. When this happens risks  materialise and the team’s level of performance falls.

One more thought on empathy. During leadership programmes, trainers and coaches (including me) often talk about “authentic leadership”.  Being true to ourselves means we’re not having to expend energy trying to be something, or someone, we are not.  Also those people around us tend to respect the fact that we are being genuine. Of course, the joke about this is that ‘once you can fake authenticity you’ve got it made’!

Empathy is a real next level skill. If empathy involves the same parts of our brain lighting up as the person who is sharing their experience, then we are one step beyond faking it. And the capacity to be an authentic leader flows from the reality of feeling what others are feeling.

There is a note of caution with all this. It is not an easy path. We may still need to challenge performance, or even let go people with whom we have empathised. This can be hard, precisely because we have a connection with them. But empathic leadership requires honesty and resilience the same as more duplicitous leadership styles. The key difference is that if you have to give challenging feedback to a member of the team, you are likely to be able to do so in a way that lands effectively and retain, or even increase, their trust.

Having the capacity to empathise with our teams and peers is not ‘soft’ or ‘fluffy’. It is tough and not to be taken lightly. But it is a way to authentically draw on an innate human capacity to build trust and a sense of safety; thereby driving performance.



More about Andrew McNeil

Andrew McNeill is a highly experienced leader and consultant, with over 20 years of experience in senior leadership positions. He has worked in high-pressure environments, leading large teams towards success.

Throughout his career, he has developed an expertise in empathic leadership, leading under pressure, preventing burnout, building psychological safety, and leading with kindness. These topics are central to his work as a keynote speaker, and he has a wealth of knowledge to share with corporate audiences.

Offering talks on empathic leadership, Psychological Safety and Recovering from Burnout, Andrew is a truly inspiring speaker providing key take aways for audiences.

To book Andrew, please email or call 01332 810481

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