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3 Reasons Why Empathy is the Most Important Leadership Quality in 2021

Coworkers huddled around a computer

It’s not just a soft skill — empathy can drive concrete business results too. Now, new research is shedding light on how having this key indicator of emotional intelligence can impact a wide range of business functions, from innovation to employee retention. 

While we may all intuitively recognize the signs of a good manager, it turns out that — of all the skills leaders need to nurture employee engagement, happiness and high performance results — empathy tops the list. Here’s why this quality is more critical than ever in 2021 and beyond. 

Related: 10 signs you’re an empath.

Woman tiredly leaning and resting her head on a terrace ledge in a busy urban setting

Leadership either addresses or fuels employee stress and burnout

Employees may face multiple stressors in their personal lives — and even experience burnout  and the pandemic has only added another layer of complexity to this mix. One global study found that:

  • 42 per cent of people have experienced some decline in mental health
  • 67 per cent experience greater stress levels
  • 57 per cent experience anxiety
  • 54 per cent are emotionally exhausted 

Related: 10 jobs with the highest burnout rates (and 5 of the lowest).

Team collaborating on a project

Empathetic leaders take a holistic approach to their team and don’t view individuals as simply cogs in one giant corporate machine. This skill can act as an antidote to temper stress, lift morale and to foster a better work environment for both individual employees.  

Related: Why getting a mentor will make your career this year.

Colleagues sitting at their laptops and laughing

Leadership impacts employee performance at work

When employees face rudeness at work, it’s not only personally demoralizing, but also has real implications on performance. A study out of Georgetown University found that workplace incivility is rising, but its effects are wide-reaching too, including reducing performance and collaboration, increasing employee turnover and even deteriorating customer experiences. 

See also: Micro-stressors: what they are and how they work.

Team collaborating on a project

By contrast, empathetic leaders nurture better work performance results. A recent study by Catalyst found that empathetic leaders impact the following key areas: 

  • Empathy drives employee innovation — The study found that 61 per cent of employees who reported having empathetic leaders were able to be innovative in their roles versus a mere 13 per cent of those who didn’t have this type of leadership.
  • Empathy supports employee engagement — Employees with empathetic leaders were more than twice as likely to report feeling engaged at work, with 76 per cent reporting engagement versus only 32 per cent of those who work with leaders who lack the skill. 
  • Empathy fuels employee retention — When employees reported having empathetic leaders who respected and valued their life circumstances, they were less likely to report thinking of leaving their employers. Critically, this number was even greater for Women of Colour, with 62 per cent reporting being unlikely to consider quitting their jobs. By contrast, 57 per cent of white women were less likely to consider leaving. Without such empathy, only 14 per cent of white women and 30 per cent of Women of Colour wouldn’t consider leaving. 
  • Empathy impacts inclusivity — Employees who report to empathetic leaders were also more likely to report having an inclusive workplace, compared to only 17 per cent of employees with less empathetic leaders. 

Related: ‘Sunday scaries’ are real — here’s how to get rid of it for good.

Woman holding a yoga pose

Leadership impacts employee’s personal lives too

A University of Illinois study found that when employees receive rude work emails, there is a spillover effect into their personal lives; incivility leads to feelings of ineptitude and can even impact the way employees feel about their parenting abilities. Not only do work stressors impact sleep quality, but they can impact personal relationships as well — particularly with employees’ own partners.

By contrast, employees of empathetic leaders reported greater work-life satisfaction, with 86 per cent being better able to manage work and personal life obligations. Only 60 per cent reported feeling this sense of work-life balance, according to Catalyst

Perhaps the best finding to come from recent research? Empathy has a multiplier effect; in other words it breeds further empathy, and not just in our work lives, but personal lives too. 

Related: Poor sleep linked to mental illness, large-scale study says.

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