Why should a leader have empathy?

How this social competence can make a difference in the way we manage our teams

In this article, we define empathy and delve into why this “ soft” skill be crucial for successful leadership. Learn how we can become more empathetic (and better) leaders.

The labor market has undergone profound changes in recent years – especially since the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the process of digital transformation of companies towards new ways of working and doing business. And if there was a time when so-called soft skills had a secondary role, that era is long gone, with social skills becoming the protagonists in new working models.

As a way to adapt to constant changes and manage them in the best way, it is now essential to recognize and develop the essential skills for professional growth, whatever the business area, function or responsibility.

It is well known that the so-called hard skills – i.e. skills that are related to specific technical knowledge – are fundamental in the performance of a specialized job, such as software development in a particular technology, for example. However, it is not only technical skills that a professional should seek to develop – and master.

To be a more complete professional, we must dedicate ourselves to knowing ourselves, to identifying our strongest social skills – which include personality and attitude traits, and are revealed in our behavior and in the way we deal with others. According to the #CtheFuture2.0 survey, recently released by Adecco, 79% of young people believe that “soft skills will be more important than hard skills in the leaders of the future”, which already reveals the awakening of the youth community to this trend.

After all, it is with social skills that we interact, create relationships, and distinguish ourselves in the labor market. And if there is one soft skill that strengthens us as professionals – and, above all, as humans – it is empathy. That’s what I want to tell you about today.

What is empathy?

According to American professor, researcher and writer Brené Brown, empathy is feeling with the other what they are feeling; it is creating and nurturing a connection with other people every day. It’s sending the message to others that they are not alone. It’s about being close.

As we often hear, you need to know how to “put yourself in the other person’s shoes” – taking into account their story, context, perspective and emotions. And that requires knowing how to be vulnerable – and allowing those around us to be vulnerable too.

Practicing empathy in the workplace is about creating a safe environment where anyone who works in our company feels they can own up to their mistakes, learn from them and be a better professional (and person) the next day. It’s knowing that you can count on people who are involved and committed to your personal and professional development and fulfillment.

It is knowing how to recognize, accept and, above all, value the human side of each professional in your team. It is, for Tim Cook (CEO of Apple), the soft skill that “cannot be left out of our career” – and our way of leading, I dare add.

What types of empathy are there?

Daniel Goleman – the psychologist, journalist and author who has devoted himself to the study of the brain and behavioral sciences, and is considered by many to be the “father” of Emotional Intelligence – argues that there are three types of empathy. In this video, he explains how these apply in a leadership context. Here is a summary:

1. emotional empathy

When we have this kind of empathy, it means that we feel what the other feels. There is an emotional involvement with the other person, and we are absorbed by that same feeling. Your problem becomes our problem too. It’s “I feel what you feel”.

2. Cognitive Empathy

When we draw on this empathy, it means we can see the world as the other sees it. People who can be empathetic at the cognitive level can see between the lines; and understand the different perspectives of various people. It’s “I understand how you feel”.

3. Empathy with Compassion

There is also the third type of empathy. One who is linked to compassion. When we have this kind of empathy, not only can we understand the other person’s point of view and feel what they feel, but we immediately volunteer to help them in any way we can. It’s “I feel you and I’m with you.”

These three types of empathy are crucial for any professional – whether in tech or any other field, and regardless of their role in the organization. But it is especially important in IT, because – at the limit – technology is just a means to an end or a mission, a tool for us to solve problems and build solutions so that people can thrive and be happier. So, to be better professionals, we all need to exercise empathy, in any situation or relationship – be it at work or at home. After all, empathy is the basis for any human relationship.

Should a leader have empathy?

I believe it is. In this talk, renowned American author and speaker Simon Sinek argues that a true leader must have two things: empathy and perspective. Both are linked to what is your real job and mission: caring for those who care for your company’s customers.

The priority of any leader, manager and/or team leader should be people. By taking care of the professionals in our team, we are ensuring two things: 1) the necessary well-being of our employees so that they feel understood and motivated; 2) the highest quality of service to our customers.

In fact, according to Forbes, cultivating empathy in the workplace – creating safe spaces where people can feel vulnerable without being judged or harmed for it – influences performance and positively impacts the bottom line.

B2C(business-to-consumer) companies are historically more “close” and open to certain concepts and approaches. Having the consumer as the end customer has always facilitated this proximity. The truth is that all B2B(business-to-business) companies work with people, not abstract entities. Isn’t it time to accept, then, that all business is H2H(human-to-human), and that we can all do better? And who better than a leader to exercise and promote the adoption of empathy in the organization?

How can we become more empathetic leaders?

Our organizations require increasingly better prepared professionals, more attentive to market trends, more aligned with business strategies, more collaborative with multidisciplinary teams, more capable of adapting to any eventuality – nothing is unrepeatable, not an economic crisis, not a pandemic, not even a war. And it all starts with the leadership. And we really need more empathetic leaders these days.

These are three principles that I value and that have helped me. I hope they can also help you to be more empathetic and ultimately better professionals – leaders, managers, or even team members.

1. Listening to those around us.

Knowing how to listen is an art that every leader must master. Leadership serves someone, and only those who listen and are truly willing to understand others can exercise it well. When we listen, we can learn to recognize signs and act in a timely and correct manner.

2. Show willingness to help.

It’s amazing the positive impact you get when you combine the ability to listen to your team with the willingness to help them. Involving people in the team and helping them overcome any obstacle, growing as people and professionals, will strengthen the relationship we share, establishing bonds of trust. And, as the old saying goes, “unity is strength”.

3. Take time to get to know the people in the team.

To be able to empathize with someone, we first need to get to know them. And our employees are, above all professionals, people. Encouraging, organizing and cultivating leisure time with our team is key. This is the best way to really get to know the people behind their jobs. By getting to know them – their interests, hobbies, tastes, opinions – we will be able to understand them much better.

Empathy at Neotalent

“We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think”, says Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. And I couldn’t agree more.

At Neotalent, we advocate that empathy is one of the most important skills any of our talents should have. For us, it is essential that our people know how to connect with each other, and help each other.

We encourage the personal development of each person, and the constant sharing of knowledge among all. Only by creating a strong connection between people (and teams) can we innovate in the way we help our clients achieve their results, while transforming the world. Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft) himself assumes this direct link between the ability to innovate and empathy.

That’s why we invest everything we can in what is the greatest asset we have: our people. After all, a company is made up of people. And, as we have already concluded, it is in caring for each other that we make the experience of work, and our lives, more rewarding and better.

Célia Vieira

I graduated in Business Administration from ISLA, and started my professional career at FAS, Information Systems. In 2001 I arrived at Novabase, in 2008 I took over the leadership of Neotalent, and I can say that I continue to learn every day. I have four children, love traveling, spending time with family, practicing Pilates and snacking in the company of good friends.

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