By Jordan Quigley, North American Vice President, Administrative and Customer Support Group, Robert Half

One piece of leadership advice has always stuck with me: “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” To me, this quote from author John C. Maxwell sums up what it means to be an empathetic leader and why empathy is more vital than ever to business success.

Companies can greatly benefit from understanding how and why they should screen for and recruit empathetic leaders who will future-proof their people-driven organizations. Consider how the global pandemic transformed our workplaces over the last two years. It brought with it uncertainty, disruption, stress and isolation. We saw the C-suite respond by replacing traditional programs with flexible policies and benefits to better support employees through these shifts. They showed their people how much they care.

And so, a precedent was set. Empathetic leadership is now an employee expectation across the board. It’s also a critical business skill that can be developed and strengthened just like any other.

Empathetic leaders elevate organizations

Leading with empathy is more than attempting to feel what others feel. Think of it as intentional compassion — understanding what others are experiencing physically, mentally and emotionally — and letting that knowledge create opportunities and more inclusive environments where work and innovation can happen. Empathetic leadership allows every person within the organization to thrive on their own terms.

With competition increasing for top talent, having empathetic leaders can be a powerful differentiator that job seekers discern: It shows up in a job description, interview process and benefits package, but also in every communication with hiring managers and HR, including job offers. And once candidates join the team, empathy will be an important part of the onboarding experience and subsequent interactions.

Empathy can also have a positive impact on the bottom line. If employees feel understood and included, they will be encouraged to contribute their individual gifts and best ideas to the betterment of the organization.

Qualities of empathetic leaders

Empathetic leaders share similar qualities — ones I try to reflect in my own practice.

  • They are authentic. By this, I mean they are inherently self-aware while always trying to learn more about who they are, what they believe and how they can make improvements. They own their mistakes and “walk the talk.”
  • They are transparent communicators and decision-makers. They believe in open dialogue, active listening and keeping their word. What you see is what you get — whether you are an employee, a customer or a member of the public.
  • They empower and develop others, recognizing that each person brings a unique set of skills, experiences and motivations that can be strategically harnessed and refined. They are focused on advancing the organization while helping to support employees’ work-life balance and career goals.
  • They embrace the broader aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), which can include categories such as educational background, socio-economic status, nontraditional career paths, political viewpoints and other elements that make up an individual’s whole self.
  • They demonstrate a high degree of emotional intelligence in their leadership, are aware and in control of their feelings and able to direct them in positive ways to overcome challenges and defuse conflict.
  • They adhere to the practices of servant leadership — meaning they focus on the growth and well-being of the people under their management. The servant-leader shares power, takes responsibility for employees’ experiences and helps them maximize their potential.

Identifying empathy in your potential leaders

Whether you are hiring a new senior executive or identifying future managers, you can assess their ability to lead empathetically. (But be sure the person doing the evaluation also demonstrates these attributes — they need to be on this journey too.)

Here are some questions to start the empathy dialogue:

  • What experiences have revealed your own empathy skills?
  • How do you manage problems or conflicts with your team or other key stakeholders?
  • How do you successfully manage stress at work, and can you share a recent example?
  • What is your approach to initiating and having a difficult conversation?
  • Who is an empathetic leader you have known or admire, and why?

Finally, you can ask the candidate to describe how they would adhere to your organization’s principles and values in the workplace, especially those related to the employee experience.

People often ask if empathy is something you’re born with or if it can be developed like any other skill. I believe that it’s both. While some may possess the capacity from birth or early childhood when they learned the Golden Rule, others can cultivate empathy through mentoring, experience and ongoing practice. And these lessons are never over. Leading with empathy is a lifelong practice.

Follow Jordan Quigley on LinkedIn.