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Does your organisation lack empathy?


Understanding others is something you can work on.

Empathy – the ability to understand the feelings of another person – has never been a ‘nice to have’.

CEOs such as Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Daniel Lubetzky of healthy snack company Kind say that empathy gives their businesses a competitive advantage – business success depends on skills such as the ability to work in teams, understand customers and create relevant products that serve the wider community.

However, as a speaker on empathy in the workplace, I am seeing an increased interest in this topic. In 2020, emotional intelligence – which includes empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills and internal motivation – made an appearance at number five in LinkedIn’s yearly list of most in demand soft skills, for the first time ever.

So if your organisation suffers from an empathy deficit, it may well be in trouble. But how do you know if you’ve got a problem?

We spot an empathy deficit when, for example, leadership is autocratic, overconfident and the senior team refuses to listen to those below them who can provide vital feedback that might help avert a crisis.

Empathy is often lacking in extremely hierarchical organisations where everyone has their place and no one is permitted to share their views with a superior.

More broadly, we might observe a lack of empathy in a culture where people are treated inequitably. Perhaps there’s favouritism and cronyism and it’s hard for anyone in the out group to be given stretch opportunities that might lead to career advancement.

We might also see it in organisations that don’t take customer views into account and think they know what’s best for their buyers, failing to innovate with the times.


One simple solution is to listen more, and better. For example, instead of trying to fix problems, leaders can simply listen first, without judgement or suggestion, and encourage staff to truly share what’s going on for them. This is incredibly difficult to do when leaders tend to prize themselves and be rewarded for their problem-solving ability, but it is possible.

I recently delivered a series of empathy for leaders sessions for a group of C-Suite execs and country leaders from a global financial services firm. The division is in the Middle East, a region reeling from the effects of COVID and the tragic Beirut explosion.

We talked about the importance of listening and creating a safe space for team members to share how they’re feeling. I gave the leaders a simple empathic listening framework that would help them to hear people out rather than jump in too fast. I also tasked them with selecting three staff members to ‘really’ listen to over the next 48 hours.

Leaders were instructed to select staff that they connected with less well, or had a weaker rapport with. When our leadership training reconvened two days later, many of the managers reported how difficult and yet how valuable it had been to exercise these listening skills with those people.

The leaders also learned a strategy for commencing remote meetings with empathy. This involved asking team members to type a traffic light colour into the chat box at the beginning of each meeting to indicate how they’re feeling. Red for something’s wrong, yellow for so-so and green for all good.

One senior executive with more than 200 people working in their team reported trying this strategy and being amazed at how several team members expressed concerns that they’d never usually share. The leader was then able to discuss these with staff and discovered several issues that urgently needed to be addressed.

Empathy often seems like a nice to have, rather than an essential component of working life, and it’s not always easy to exercise. But it is a skill, not an inherent trait, and leaders who want to keep their finger on the pulse and stay responsive to the rapidly changing business world would do well to stay quiet sometimes so they can listen and fully understand the feelings of colleagues and customers.

This article first appeared on Management Today.

Shola Kaye is the author of two books and an award-winning international speaker on Communication, Inclusive Leadership and Empathy at Work. She’s passionate about helping organisations create an atmosphere of belonging for their people and for those individuals, in turn, to be given the skills and opportunity to communicate with power and clarity.

Shola’s Empathy to Equity Blueprint programme helps organisations improve staff inclusion and engagement. When individuals have the confidence and tools to share their brilliance, amazing things happen. People are transformed into leaders. Teams and groups perform better. Everyone gains. Shola’s work has appeared in a variety of industry journals, she’s a LinkedIn Learning instructor, and her clients include The United Nations and Deloitte.

For workshop or speaking enquiries, contact Shola at [email protected] or +447734 963 593

Download the FREE guide ‘Preparing for Empathy’ that will help you and your organization prepare for improved listening, bettered connections, and more compassion long-term:

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