(Photo by Sasithorn Phuapankasemsuk/iStock by Getty Images)

It’s a trait that’s often misunderstood. We might think empathy is about feeling others’ pain, that you either have empathy or you don’t. We might not see a need for it at work. But employers may underestimate its power to improve performance. So says Adam Bouse, a performance coach from 15Five, a comprehensive performance- management platform. Utilizing years of academic research and practice, Bouse made his case for increasing workplace empathy in the thought-leadership spotlight, “Empathy: The Missing Leadership Skill You Need for Collaboration and Decision-Making,” at From Day One’s August virtual conference on hybrid workforce strategies.

“Empathy isn’t just something that's nice to have,” said Bouse. “It’s going to contribute to productivity, to creativity, to retention. Those things are going to impact business results and the bottom line. So this isn't about being nice or being kind to people–though, let’s do that, too. Let’s be better humans.”

Empathy is a critical tool for truly effective and transformational leadership. The better that we can empathize as leaders, the more effectively we can collaborate, make decisions, and reach goals. It’s a trainable skill that leads to higher levels of trust, more effective communication, and drives more empowered decision-making, asserted Bouse.

The Business Case for Empathy

Employees with empathetic leaders are more engaged at work (76% versus 32%, as reported in a 2020 study by Catalyst). Deeper engagement impacts productivity, inclusion, and the capacity to handle challenges and opportunities. Having empathetic leaders also increases employees’ ability to be innovative (61% vs. 13%, according to the same study). Beyond creating new products or ideas, innovation is about embracing constraints and problem-solving. “Being understood is going to enable people to feel more comfortable taking risks,” said Bouse, “and trying things that haven’t been tried before.”

Adam Bouse, a performance coach from 15Five (Company photo)

Increased empathy leads to higher retention rates for female employees, and more so with women of color. When they felt respected and valued, 62% of women of color and 57% of white women (vs. 30% and 14%, respectively, among those who didn’t) said they were unlikely to leave their companies. If people leave managers not companies, as the thinking goes, then coaching leaders to express understanding will result in lower turnover.

“This is really about building connection within your teams and your organizations so that you can lead thriving people and execute high-performing objectives,” said Bouse.

Defining Empathy

So what is empathy? How does it work? And how does it impact our ability to make effective decisions?

Nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman defined empathy as having four attributes:

  • Understanding what someone thinks.
  • Understanding what someone feels.
  • Communicating your understanding back to the other person.
  • Withholding judgment.

It’s not merely an emotional experience or feeling what someone else feels. Nor is it a fixed trait. “Empathy is just one part of the process of relating to, connecting, and working with other people,” said Bouse. “[It’s] an ongoing, dynamic experience. There are elements of it that are neurological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. It’s one tool in the toolkit. I’s not the whole process, but it's a starting point.”

As with any tool, knowing when and where to use it is key. “When do I need to sit down and listen?” asks Bouse. “And when are we ready for action?” Leaders need to be able to be more empathetic, but not as a substitute for accountability.

“My shorthand definition of empathy is simply understanding without judgment,” said Bouse. “It’s a trainable skill that every leader needs to be leveraging, in every conversation, in every relationship, and every aspect of the work.”

Emotions and Decision-making

Empathy is not the opposite of being logical or rational. Thoughts and feelings are connected; you can’t selectively have one without the other. Empathy goes beyond relying on your instincts–which is generally only helpful when you have a predictable circumstance with limited variables that you’re evaluating repeatedly. But people are complicated. Trusting your gut may mean you’re relying on assumptions.

But bringing emotion into decision-making improves performance, as researched by scholars Lisa Feldman Barrett and Myeong Gu-Seo: “Contrary to the popular belief that feelings are generally bad for decision-making, we found that individuals who experienced more intense feelings achieved higher decision-making performance.”

We all experience biases, which show up as emotional impulses that drive our behavior. People who are more aware of their emotions can better regulate them and put them into context. This integration of thoughts and emotions helps us to make the most effective choice based on a holistic picture. “So we actually need to bring more emotion into decision making,” Bouse said, “but not make decisions purely based on emotional means.”

Women tend to score higher on empathy assessments. But competency does not equal capacity. “There are a lot of cultural factors built into how we've been socialized, across the gender spectrum, about what's appropriate to express,” said Bouse. “Those things tend to shape the way that we understand or justify what we are or aren't feeling. But that doesn't mean you can't grow and develop.”

How to Level Up Your Empathy

The No. 1 reason leaders don’t practice empathy is they haven’t done their own work in terms of looking within themselves, according to Bouse. Having empathy and a non-judgmental understanding of others requires us to understand ourselves first. “I want to become my best self so that I can be reflective, which enables me to then commit to relational mastery, focusing on the relationships and how I influence and impact other people, which allows us to create a really powerful shared context.”

In remote and hybrid work, we can’t see what people are doing or how they spend their time, and may not understand the frustrations that show up in their day. But what was implicit must become explicit. Leaders and colleagues must ask questions to seek understanding, check for accuracy, withhold judgment, stay curious and offer support so that better decisions are made.

“We can collaborate better, especially across time and distance, asynchronous communication, Slack messages, text messages, video messages,” said Bouse. “A lot can get lost in a remote environment. And so we have to be really intentional.”

Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this thought-leadership spotlight, 15Five.

Samantha Campos is a freelance journalist who has written for regional publications in California and Hawaii, with forays into medical cannabis and food justice nonprofits. She currently resides in Oakland, Calif.