More than ever, we need empathetic and compassionate leaders. Recent studies have shown that contrary to some conventional wisdom, empathetic and compassionate leaders are strong and courageous; they promote trust and collaboration; promote well-being in others; and at the same time, they produce positive results.

Every day, in politics, and in our institutions and business, we see the polar opposite of empathetic and compassionate leaders—individuals who are narcissistic, self-serving, and power-hungry—who create havoc in our society.

Leaders in business schools, organizations and in politics are taught to lead with their heads and not with their hearts. Leaders are expected to be strategic, rational, tough, bottom-line business people who focus on results. Yet, recent research on successful leaders and the current turbulent economic and social times calls out for a different style of leader—one that exhibits kindness, compassion and empathy.

Toxic Leaders and Toxic Work Cultures

In my new book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, I describe the toxic state of many workplaces, often as a result their leaders’ influence. Leaders in business schools, organizations and in politics are taught to lead with their heads and not with their hearts. Driving, directive, coercive styles of leadership may move people and get results in the short-term, but the dissonance it creates is associated with toxic relationships and emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear. In my work, I see increasing prevalence of leaders who engage in trash-talking, or “smack-talking,” about their opponents or competitors and under the stress for results, and revert back to an authoritarian, style of leadership. Further, these kinds of leaders often see their job as a form of warfare, or athletic competition complete with appropriate jargon to go with it. We need only look at political leaders engaged in election cycles to see the descent into character assassination and bottom-of-the barrel personal attacks.

According to Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, bad boss behavior seems to be pandemic and now, a new survey reveals that self-oriented bosses are more prevalent than ever. In a survey Taylor commissioned of 1,002 adults, 86% of Americans felt that too often, bad boss behaviors fly under the radar until it’s too late, affecting too many people. According to an earlier study, 70% of workers said they believed employees must be careful standing up to their abusive bosses, or they could lose their jobs. A five-year, national study compared bad, childish traits, including stubbornness, self-oriented, overly demanding, impulsiveness, interrupting and tantrum-throwing in bosses between 2004 to 2009, and found “self-oriented” spiked by 50% to the top spot in that period. In the same study conducted by a global research firm, seven in 10 Americans said “bosses and toddlers with too much power act alike.”

Swedish researchers, led by Anna Nyberg at the Stress Institute in Stockholm, have published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine on the issue of leaders’ behavior and employee health. They studied more than 3,100 men over a 10-year period in typical work settings. They found that employees who had managers who were incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative, were 60% more likely to suffer a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition.  Nyberg said, “for all those who work under managers who they perceive behave strangely, or in any way they don’t understand, and they feel stressed, the study confirms this develops into a health risk.”

A startling 37% of American workers—roughly 54 million people—have been bullied at work according to a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The consequences of such bullying cost organizations reduced creativity, low morale and increased turnover. According to the Institute, 40% of the targets of bulling never told their employers, and of those that did, 62% reported that they were ignored. According to a survey by Zogby International, almost 50% of the U.S. workers report they have experienced or witnessed some kind of bullying—verbal abuse, insults, threats, screaming, sarcasm or ostracism. One study by John Medina showed that workers stressed by bullying performed 50% worse on cognitive tests. Other studies estimate the financial costs of bullying at more than $200 billion per year.

Pier M. Forni, author of The Civility Solution: What To Do When People Are Rude and director of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University says, “In today’s American, incivility is on prominent display: in the schools, where bullying is pervasive; in the workplace, where an increasing number are more stressed out by coworkers than their jobs; on the roads, where road rage maims and kills; in politics where strident intolerance takes the place of earnest dialogue; and on the web, where men check their inhibitions at the digital door.” Gary Namie, a psychologist and co-founder of The Workplace Bullying Institute contends, “how in the world can we stop bullying in schools, in the workplace, in politics, when it is so close to our national character right now?”

We are in the mindset of a paradox in the form of a gap between the way leaders are defined by hundreds of leadership studies and surveys of employees—collaborative, compassionate, empathetic—and the leaders we actually end up choosing—controlling, often authoritarian, narcissistic, sometimes psychopathic and at a minimum, dominating. And they are invariably males. In his new book, Leadership BS, Jeffrey Pfeffer says, based on his research, “there is overwhelming evidence of workplaces filled with disengaged, dissatisfied employees who do not trust their leaders and whose often expressed number one desire is to leave their current employer."

He goes on to say that the the failure of leaders has taken a “enormous psychological and even physical toll exacted on employees from bullying, abusive bosses and work environments filled with multiple sources of stress.” Pfeffer says that our tendency to continue the mythology of superperformers, building up leaders to be larger than life feeds the desire for narcissistic and/or authoritarian leaders.

In my article in Psychology Today, “A Return to ‘Treat’em Mean and Keep’em Keen’ Management,” I describe how some management experts and observers still advocate the authoritarian, aggressive approach to management as a formula for productivity. Recently there has been a flurry of articles which promote the idea that employees want to receive “constructive criticism,” or “negative feedback,” and that employees prefer “tough love” by managers. Such claims are retrograde and ignore recent neuroscience and motivation research that clearly show positive feedback and encouragement improve performance.

For example, a Harvard Business Review blog article by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman argues, based on survey data “giving negative feedback tends to the most avoided dimension” of feedback, based on the conclusion that “negative (redirecting) feedback, if delivered appropriately, is effective at improving performance.” Such a conclusion is huge leap. In fact, there is no evidence to support the proposition that corrective or “constructive” feedback improves performance. And the proviso given by Zenger and Folkman—“if delivered appropriately,” leaves a hole in the argument as big as the Grand Canyon. Many research studies have shown that few managers know how to give appropriate positive feedback, let alone negative or “constructive feedback.”

In a similar vein, Laura Stack, writing in HR Insights, says, “Criticism can be difficult to hear, but pain helps us learn and improve ourselves," and, “So listen and act on constructive criticism,” and suggests to her readers to just “calmly absorb the criticism graciously.” And Jacquelyn Smith, writing in Forbes, outlines “8 Ways Negative Feedback Can Lead To Greater Success At Work.”

In an article in Management Issues, author Nic Paton contends “it is hard taskmasters who are not afraid to crack the whip to get the job done that are most valued by employees,” citing a study by the U.K. Institute of Leadership & Management of 1,500 managers. However, the conclusion was not reached based on how employees felt about that issue. Paton goes on to cite a University of Chicago study by Steven Kaplan which suggested that “hard-nosed” CEOs were preferred. However, when you examine the study carefully, it should be noted that the study is in reference to VC and “buyout” companies only, which presents a very different dynamic to the bulk of research which identifies positive interpersonal skills as a key trait of successful leaders.

While these perspectives may be mildly interesting and harken us back a half century to management theories supporting the command and control or “carrot-and-stick” approach to management, they are hardly in keeping with the massive amount of research to the contrary. Constructive feedback, which is usually critical, rarely helps anyone, and certainly rarely improves employee performance on the job. In his article in the Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of the Energy Project, and author of Be Excellent At Anything, says that when we hear the phrase from someone, "would you mind if I give you some feedback?" what that actually means to most of us is "would you mind if I gave you some negative feedback," wrapped up in the guise of constructive criticism, whether you want it or not.

Why do employees quit their jobs? Leigh Branham, author of 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave analyzed over 20,000 anonymous surveys asking employees why they left their last job. Although most managers believe pay is the primary reason people quit, Branham discovered that the number one reason actually is “loss of trust and confidence in senior leaders.” And that loss of trust is often correlated to abusive bosses. And a study by the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies concluded “There is little doubt that employee engagement can be strengthened by fairness and its related elements, just as employee engagement can be weakened by unfairness and the like. As both the workforce and the workplace evolve, organizations may find that in order to win the “war for talent,” they must first win the battle for employees’ hearts.” 

The Case for Empathy and Compassion

It might be useful here to make some distinctions among empathy, compassion and sympathy.

Sympathy means the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else's trouble, grief, misfortune. Empathy is a much deeper feeling and can be defined as the feeling that you understand and share another person's feelings and emotions. Compassion can be defined as a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering, with the focus on a desire for action.

Dachel Keltner, a University of California psychologist and author of Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, and a number of his fellow colleagues are building the case that humans are the successful dominant species because of our compassionate, kind, altruistic and nurturing traits. One of these studies has shown that many people are genetically predisposed to be empathetic. “The new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin’s observations nearly 130 years ago that compassion is our strongest instinct,” argues Keltner. Jonathan Haidt, author of Righteous Mind, reflects the view of Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson and others who argue that when groups of animals compete, it’s the cohesive, cooperative, internally altruistic groups that win and pass on their genes.

Frans de Waal is author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For A Kinder Society. De Waal is a biologist, professor of psychology and director of the Living Link Center at Emory University. In 2007, Time magazine selected him as one of the world’s most influential people. The distinguished scientist says it is long overdue that we jettisoned our beliefs about human nature—proposed by economists and politicians—that human society is modeled on the perpetual struggle for survival that exists in nature. De Waal says this is mere projection on our part. Nature is replete with examples of cooperation and empathy.

Empathy, de Waal explains, is the social glue that holds human society together. He argues that modern psychology and neuroscience research supports the concept that “empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.” He points to the fact that many animals survive not by eliminating each other, or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing. Given all we know about empathy in other animal species, why do we persist in seeing human existence, particularly in business, as a fight for survival, with winners and losers? De Waal calls this the “macho origin myth” which insists that the human species has been waging war on itself as millennia as a reflection of our true nature. What has been ignored is the fact that empathy has been evident during that entire time. De Waal points to a mass of examples of sacrifice, empathy, co-operation and fairness in humans and other animals’ species.

What Empathy is Not

Empathy is not a weakness. To the contrary, empathetic leaders often spend a great deal of time hearing about the pain and suffering of constituents. To do so and remain positive and optimistic requires a great deal of fortitude. Empathy also is not caving into every concern or fear of those you serve. Leaders must maintain their resolve and cannot waffle on many decisions. Otherwise, the followers will lose confidence and be uncertain of the direction a leader will take. Empathy is the ability to get an insight or recognize the emotions of others. Empathy does not mean that we live emotions of other people, but it means that we understand other people’s emotions from our experiences. Empathy does not mean for one to identify with another thus canceling his own personality, but to get in his mind and soul to understand how he perceives reality. It is built on openness to feelings of others, on the ability to read information from nonverbal channels.

Empathetic and Compassionate Leaders

In my article “Why Kindness Should Be A Required Leadership Characteristic,” in the National Post, I said, “so-called “soft-skills” or traits, such as kindness, empathy and compassion in leaders have often been seen as weaknesses.” In reality they are strengths. Annie McKee, and Richard Boyatzis, in their book, Resonant Leadership, argue “Research shows that positive emotions such as empathy and compassion have a decidedly constructive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health and personal relationships.”

Christina Boedker of the Australian School of Business conducted a research study on the link between leadership and organizational performance and collected data from more than 5600 people in 77 organizations. She concluded that, out of all the various elements in a business, the ability of a leader to be empathetic and compassionate, “to understand people’s motivators, hopes and difficulties and to create the right support mechanism to allow people to be as good as they can be,” had the greatest correlation with profitability and productivity, Boedker concluded.  Boedker’s research was consistent with that of Geoff Aigner, Director of Social Leadership Australia and on the faculty of the Australian School of Business. In his book, Leadership Beyond Good Intentions: What It Takes To Really Make a Difference, he contends that good management is ultimately an act of empathy and compassion.

William Baker and Michael O’Malley, authors of Leading With Kindness argue that the practice of kindness in corporations has a positive impact on bottom line business results. They argue that a management style, which could be called transformational, that has these traits—compassion, empathy, integrity, gratitude, authenticity, humility and humor—improves employee performance and employee retention.

Ernest J. Wilson II and his colleagues at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism crisscrossed the U.S. and travelled to other nations asking business leaders what attributes executives must have to succeed in today’s digital, global economy.

They reported the results of their research to other leaders, which identified empathy as the most important of the five leadership attributes they had uncovered. And this enthusiasm for empathy among business leaders crosses borders. Not only entertainment executives in Los Angeles and IT leaders in Manhattan but also PR professionals in Shanghai and digital businessmen and investors meeting in the Jockey Club in Beijing acknowledged the overwhelming importance of empathy. So did start-up founders in Rome and advertising professionals in Paris.

Manfred Kets de Vries, INSEAD Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change argues in an article in Harvard Business Review that “empathy enhances our ability to receive and process information, and to find solutions. Empathy strengthens bonds of trust, and it is the basis for our intrinsic sense of justice. In particular, empathy with the negative, that is, with the emotions behind someone’s unpleasant or destructive actions, can provide clues to behavior. Empathy has played a key role in human evolution as a mechanism to enhance parental nurturing and protection. Indeed, much of our ability to empathize derives from childhood experiences with parents and other caregivers.”

Kets de Vries argues there also seems to be a neurological component to empathy. The chemical currency of empathy is controlled by a group of neurotransmitters—endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin—that reward us by making us feel good. In particular, oxytocin (also known as the “love hormone”) seems to play an important role in social bonding by, among other things, making us more sensitive to the emotions of others. Empathic executives are better at managing relationships. They establish safe environments in which people can express hopes and fears. Because it is “contagious,” empathy contributes to better negotiation, collaboration, and conflict resolution. Empathy plays an important role in effective team formation. When the expression of empathy is part of a company’s culture, its stress level will be lower. All of these advantages lead to a more committed workforce with a greater motivation to perform beyond expectations.

A new study from researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the George Mason University School of Business found a clear, positive correlation between compassionate behavior, work satisfaction and company success. Their results were published in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly.

A 2011 study of 6,731 managers from 38 countries by the Center for Creative Leadership also uncovered strong performance by empathetic bosses, saying they " effectively build and maintain relationships."

Contemporary workers "want a sense of connection," which empathetic managers offer, says Adam Waytz, an empathy researcher and associate professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Yet, few companies scientifically measure outcomes from this training, he adds. At least one measure suggests that empathy boosts corporate results, too. The top 10 businesses among 160 in a 2015 Global Empathy Index generated 50% more net income per employee than the bottom 10. The index analyzed such factors as how well those companies treat workers and communicate with customers.

The organization Businessolver has developed a new Workplace Empathy Monitor, which surveyed more than 1,000 CEOs, HR Professionals and Employees. This eye-opening study found that there is a gap between how empathetic leaders perceive themselves to be and how their message and action are perceived by employees. That gap can lead to decreased satisfaction and lowered engagement levels, not to mention employee turnover and low morale. Employees want their priorities, expectations and needs to be heard and understood by their leadership, and leaders are struggling with what to do and say that shows empathy to their employees.

According to Businessolver's research, employees are more likely to take—and keep—a job at an organization that they perceive to be empathetic. Consumers, too, are more eager to do business with an organization that they think is empathetic. Among the findings of the study are:

  • Only 24% of Americans believe that organizations are empathetic versus 60% of CEOs.
  • 31% of employees believe profit is all that matters to their organization, and that their organization doesn’t care about employees.
  • 1 in 3 employees would switch companies, for equal pay, if they were more empathetic.

In a white paper delivered to the Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology Conference, William A Gentry, Todd J. Weber and Golnaz Sadri argued “transformational leaders need empathy in order to show their followers that they care for their needs and achievement; authentic leaders also need to have empathy in order to be aware of others; and that empathy is also a key part of emotional intelligence that several researchers believe is critical to being an effective leader,” and “our results reveal that empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.” They also concluded empathy is not a fixed trait. It can be learned. Leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training, or developmental opportunities and initiatives.

Why Compassion Makes Good Business Sense for Leaders

While empathy is a lynchpin for good leadership, a compassionate work culture, where leaders regularly demonstrate concern for people experiencing difficulties and act upon the concern to help and support is also a key element. EMMA SEPPÄLÄ has written extensively about the value of having compassionate leaders in our organizations. She argues “Most of the research suggests that a compassionate workplace fosters engagement not so much through material goods as through the qualities of the organizations’ leaders, such as a sincere commitment to values and ethics, genuine interpersonal kindness, and self-sacrifice.”

What does it take to be an empathetic and compassionate leader?

Empathy and compassion and comes from a place deep within us, and yet it seems there are too few opportunities to express it in the workplace and even fewer opportunities for leaders to demonstrate kindness and compassion. Kind and compassionate leaders:

  • Have greater levels of self-awareness;
  • Are open-minded and open-hearted;
  • Regulate their emotions, particularly in crisis or stressful situations;
  • Intentional respond to highly charged situations and people, rather than impulsively reacting;
  • Lead by example, rather than by direction;
  • Remove or decrease judgment and criticism of others as a motivational strategy;
  • Are mindful to the effect their words and actions have on others;
  • Spend a greater amount of time being emotional observers of others, rather than most of the time being initiators;
  • Are sensitive to others’ feeling and emotional states with their hearts, and not just spending most of the time in their heads in rational thought;
  • Are empathetic and compassionate listeners, not just active listeners;
  • Demonstrate vulnerability and a willingness to admit mistakes.

A Turning Point

So much of our current political and business landscape is characterized by incivility, hurtful language and behavior by too many leaders. Little wonder how our society and institutions have become toxic places for many people, with damaging results. There is more than convincing research evidence to show that people want our leaders to be empathetic and compassionate. Our collective well being may be determined by it. In the movie, Avatar, we learn really connecting and understanding others is a result of “seeing them,” implying an emotional and compassionate awareness. Similarly, “Sawubona” is a Zulu greeting which basically means “we see you.” We desperately need leaders who “see” others.

Copyright, 2016 by Ray Williams. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.

To read more of my posts on this blog, click here. 
To subscribe to my personal blog, click here. 
Join me on Twitter@raybwilliams. 
I also write at The Financial Post, and Fulfillment Daily and

My new book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle form in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

You are reading

Wired for Success

Myths and Truths About Successful CEOs

How CEO stereotypes persist despite contrary evidence

The Rebirth of Macho:Toxic Masculinity and Authoritarianism

How the convergence of these three trends threaten American democracy

Regrets in Life: A Good or Bad Thing?

Do regrets serve a purpose and are they beneficial?