What You Need to Know about Empathy in Business Leadership

What You Need to Know about Empathy in Business Leadership

One of the most important aspects of emotional intelligence is empathy, the ability to relate to what the people around us are feeling. While questions about the value of empathy in a business leader may seem silly to the average person (after all, who wouldn’t prefer a boss who can relate to them?), this issue remains controversial in some circles.

The Current Debate on the Value of Empathy

Empathy has become a hot topic in recent years with Peter Bazalgette publishing the book The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society around the same time that Barack Obama began speaking about the “empathy deficit” that plagues the nation. However, not everyone agrees that empathy is a good thing. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom recently made waves with his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, in which he examines the inherent problems of using empathy as a moral guide.

According to Bloom, empathy is necessarily biased and can cause us to be near-sighted, sacrificing future security for short-term benefit. Also, Bloom argues, empathy favors the one over the many. These two factors can cause leaders to make poor decisions that create more problems down the road.

The Two Different Forms of Empathy

Business leaders need to understand that two different forms of empathy exist. The first is cognitive empathy, which refers to a person’s ability to understand how other individuals think. No one would argue with the idea that cognitive empathy is essential to excellent leadership, especially in the business arena. In fact, cognitive empathy gives individuals the tools they need to persuade, negotiate, and inspire.

business empathy

The second, more complex type of empathy, emotional empathy, proves much more controversial in the business arena. This kind of empathy involves a leader’s ability to feel what other people feel—or at least what he or she imagines them to feel. On the surface, emotional empathy is a valuable tool for business leaders because employees tend to be more devoted to leaders who they feel really care about them. At the same time, says Bloom, people do not need to feel empathy to really care. For example, one doesn’t need to feel someone’s fear in order to comfort them when they are afraid. In fact, emotional empathy can actually make leaders biased toward people who are similar to them, which means that they can be poor judges of character.

Emotional empathy does have a place in business though. Most notably, emotional empathy is critical to product development and marketing. To create a product or service that people really want, leaders need to have more than just a cerebral understanding of their customers’ needs. Leaders also need an emotional connection. Thus, the most successful sales professionals tend to have a great deal of emotional empathy.

The Role of Emotional Empathy in Business Leadership

While emotional empathy may cause business leaders some problems, this does not mean that they should completely avoid it. Reason alone will only take a business executive so far. Eventually, they will need to be empathetic in order to establish real connections with their employees and customers.

However, leaders need to keep their empathy in check to avoid succumbing to an unconscious bias. The best leaders acknowledge their empathetic responses to others’ feelings and then consciously challenge their feelings rather than simply giving into them. This empowers them to weigh their emotions against the facts of a given situation.

Developing Balanced Emotional Empathy

So how does a business leader develop a balanced sense of emotional empathy? The first step is to build one’s emotional intelligence. This involves closely observing and listening to others. When talking to people, leaders need to avoid distractions and be fully present so that they can learn to read a person’s body language, which often communicates the emotional work going on behind his or her words. Listening and paying attention are keys to developing both cognitive and emotional empathy.


To keep empathy from factoring too heavily in their decision-making processes, leaders need to nurture their self-awareness. To this end, they need to take time to analyze their motivations, whether mentally or on paper. This will help leaders gain an awareness of their own emotions and thoughts, which can help them regulate their emotions in times of crisis. By doing so, they can turn empathy off and rely on logic. They can also become aware of biases that could be forming in times of emotional connection. When a charged situation occurs, business leaders need to avoid reacting impulsively, which could mean restraining their empathy. In short, they must be intentional in all that they do.

Executives need to work on approaching situations with an open mind and heart, which means checking their biases and preconceived notions. While people can never really get rid of these thoughts, becoming aware of them gives individuals power over them. When leaders feel themselves judging or criticizing others, they should make a mental note to review the events later on to figure out the what percentage of their actions stemmed from an empathetic response.