The headline, “Why Is Your Boss Asking About Your Feelings?” stopped me in my tracks – feelings aren’t usually a headline topic in the Wall St. Journal. I was happy to see the topic of employee feelings in a leading business paper, however, I was disappointed when the story missed out on an important aspect of empathetic leadership – namely, what’s to be gained by understanding how your people truly feel.

I would argue that empathetic leaders should not, as the story suggests, concentrate their efforts on people’s personal lives and what makes them tick. The goal is not to simply get to know people better (or be seen as trying to do so.)

The whole point of being an empathetic leader is to be a better and more effective leader. Empathy is, in my mind, the strategic understanding that enables a leader to make better decisions and communicate more accurately.

To be sure, organic conversations and connections about shared interests should not be discounted – when those moments happen, they should be allowed to flourish. My point is that the aim of leader empathy isn’t to make employees feel their boss takes a lively interest in their hobbies or children’s sports. The aim of an empathic leader should be to develop a clear understanding of how employees feel about their work, the workplace, the culture, their peers, and their leaders.

Simply put, I am convinced that if you understand how your employees feel, you will understand why they behave as they do.

When one can view the workplace from an employee’s vantage point, and understand how the work experience impacts peoples’ personal lives, one can use that information strategically to improve important aspects of business performance.

Examples of empathetic leaders in action 

Empathetic leaders are masters of this kind of understanding, and they use it to their advantage.

  • It is empathy that drives a leader with a burned-out workforce to adjust schedules and lighten the workload, thereby aiming at the underlying problem, rather than studiously ignoring the circumstances causing the burnout. This leader understands that burned-out people are highly likely to leave, which would only exacerbate the problem at hand.
  • It is empathy that compels a leader to dig into the reasons why turnover is accelerating, find the truth, and take focused action to address the catalyst behind employee departures. This leader knows that the effort required to resolve these issues will slow the turnover rate and the resulting inefficiencies and redundant work.
  • It is empathy that motivates a leader to make the decision that behaviours that don’t align with the values will not be tolerated, irrespective of an employee’s performance. This leader knows that one person doesn’t contribute as much to the business as a team, and refuses to put a team at risk for one person.

What isn’t empathetic leadership? 

  • Offering pizza parties or perks to overworked staff, and expecting the attending issues to be resolved.
  • Using short-term bonuses to retain employees, rather than finding out why so many are leaving.
  • Turning a blind eye to unethical or negative workplace behavior when the perpetrator is a high performer.

Why empathy is so important

There’s a bright line between how employees feel about work–such as development opportunities, the culture, and their managers–and their morale, performance, and likelihood of staying in the role (or, for that matter, leaving.) That’s why paying attention to how people are feeling is important.

Simply put, if people aren’t feeling good, that’s a sign for leaders that something needs to be done. As a leader, you ignore their feelings at your peril. People will only put up with aggravation for so long, and then they will leave.

The beautiful thing about empathetic leadership is the lasting and sustainable benefits it provides – to both business performance and employees. When leaders have the information they need to resolve problems and make improvements in the business, everyone benefits. Employees are less frustrated, more engaged – and much more likely to stay rather than leave. Their morale improves, and with it, performance.

At its heart, empathy is strategic understanding that can inform better decisions. To improve employee retention and performance, leaders must make understanding how people feel about their work, the workplace, their peers, and their managers a priority.

Read more about how you can achieve empathetic leadership at scale in your organisation.