Empathetic Leadership is the Best Leadership Style

Dr. Ryan Giffen

Leaders exist to inspire, help, and guide others toward achieving their goals, driving innovation, and becoming more well-rounded professionals. However, the corporate world relied on authoritarian leadership for decades. But even though strict bosses may have good intentions and want to see their employees accomplish the best results, this style is often rooted in fear, like in politics. The line between encouraging people to reach demanding objectives and micromanaging them is thin.

According to a 2019 survey, only seven percent of employees like working with employers who lead with authority. The majority prefers balance and leaders who can inspire people to achieve admirable things while being empathetic. Yet, many employers overlook the importance of empathy or perceive it as a weakness. Harvard Business Review even found that power can corrupt leaders and rewire their brains.

That phenomenon is known as hubris syndrome. However, that isn’t the outcome successful bosses strive for or happens consciously. Instead, taking on more complex responsibilities and pressure forces people to start caring less about others. That may also be a defense mechanism that makes it easier for leaders to make high-risk decisions. But empathetic leadership might be necessary in the post-pandemic world.

How Authoritarian and Strict Leadership Affect Employees?

Authoritarian leadership represents a management style where an individual has the power over decision-making and decides all policies, goals, and procedures. As a result, these leaders work with limited input from their employees and team members. Thus, they typically control or oversee everyone’s tasks in a company and determine their objectives. That isn’t to say authoritarian leadership has no benefits. For instance, it is advantageous when making efficient and urgent decisions is necessary. Strict leadership also comes in handy when employees must perform some assignments in a certain way, with little to no place for mistakes.

Companies can also benefit from this style if they lack concrete deadlines and stellar organization. That way, workers can focus on performing their assignments without worrying about decision-making. But authoritarian leadership also has many shortcomings that impact employee and business performance. According to one study from 2021, it brings fear among workers, diminishes psychological safety, and discourages extra-role behaviors. Moreover, employees often perceive authoritarian leaders as iron-fisted, insensitive, and domineering, leading to a hostile environment and resentment.

Employees may also feel discontent due to the inability to participate in decision-making or contribute to business objectives with their expertise. All of that could cause a higher turnover rate and lack of engagement. Thus, autocratic leaders struggle with creative problem-solving approaches and have a more challenging time connecting with their team members. No wonder this leadership style often leads to poor work performance, work environment deterioration, and toxic company culture.

The work climate also worsens when authoritarian leaders suppress their subordinates’ emotions to operate. It is also challenging to instill trust when employees sense their employers perceive them as order-takers.

Why There’s No Place for Authoritarian Leadership in the Post-Pandemic World?

It seems that we have already sailed into the post-pandemic world. But even though people in many countries no longer look concerned about COVID-19, the past two years' scars remain forever. The pandemic has made us increasingly vulnerable, and support among friends, families, and coworkers has become essential. People felt lonelier than ever, having to juggle continuous fear of possible infection, personal life, and professional obligations. As a result, the stress, depression, and anxiety levels reached alarming heights. For many employees, things were even direr if they had unsympathetic bosses who expected a higher workload and didn't have enough understanding of workers' work-life balance.

Today, more than ever before, people need compassion and empathy, including in the workplace. Without these, it's much harder to handle stress, continuous changes, disrupted economy, and social injustice. Thus, job seekers have higher expectations due to having more available vacancies and having the opportunity to choose their future employer. That has encouraged many people to quit their jobs in the past year, resulting in the Great Resignation.

Since that phenomenon threatens to continue in 2022 and beyond, it's crucial to address job seekers' needs and struggles. That also means listening to employees' sentiments and understanding what drove them to resign. For instance, 54 percent of workers left their jobs because their boss was unsympathetic to their struggles at work. On the other hand, 49 percent quit because their employers were unempathetic to their personal lives.

Lack of sympathy among business leaders has caused burnout in many employees. That sets the grounds for resentment and forces people to look for better opportunities. According to the new EY Consulting survey, 90 percent of US workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction, and 79 percent agree it decreases turnover. Unsurprisingly, people expect better in the post-pandemic world. COVID-19 has forced everyone to question their life choices and confront their mortality.

Employees want their jobs to be meaningful and make a difference. But they also don't want to dedicate their lives to meeting the demands of authoritarian leaders. Instead, employees hope to work with employers who care about them and don't focus solely on profit. But that doesn't mean empathetic leadership doesn't equally benefit business and revenues.

What is Empathetic Leadership?

Empathetic leadership is a management style that centers around understanding employees’ emotions, needs, and feelings and encourages leaders to care about the people in their charge and identify with them. These bosses typically have a high and well-developed emotional intelligence. As a result, they ensure their team members and workers feel understood and find meaning in their jobs. Moreover, empathetic leadership makes it easier to handle crises and challenges due to having the support of people.

But the belief that leaders should be cutthroat and cold still prevails. That forces many employers to discard empathy from the workplace and direct their efforts toward activities and operations directly impacting the bottom line. However, they often disregard how beneficial empathetic leadership is for employees’ performance, engagement, and retention. Recent research has shown empathy is the most significant leadership skill and contributes to positive outcomes.

For instance, 61 percent of people said they are more innovative with empathetic leaders, while 76 percent feel more engaged. Moreover, 86 percent of employees report they can successfully navigate the demands of their work and personal life with caring employers. A study released in Evolutionary Biology has shown that introducing empathy into decision-making increases cooperation and increases people's compassion. So, how can companies cultivate empathetic leadership?

How to Cultivate Empathetic Leadership?

1. Reinforce Listening Skills

Monopolizing conversations is among the worst enemies of empathy. Talking over others and silencing their ideas and solutions is just as harmful. Because of that, companies should practice active listening and teach their current and future leaders to be attentive, hear others out, and acknowledge everyone’s opinions. They should genuinely understand the message their interlocutor aims to convey.

Managers should encourage open and meaningful conversations with employees and do their best to comprehend them. That helps improve collaboration and makes it easier for workers to reach out and share their ideas.  

2. Nurture Compassion

Employers and managers can often be overly harsh, believing candid and tough feedback is the best way to improve employees’ performance. However,’ that’s rarely the case. Even though leaders should be honest, not every opinion must be expressed out loud. Thus, they should practice constructive criticism and think their words through before speaking. Compassion ensures we don’t hurt other people’s feelings or discourage them from sharing their ideas and viewpoints in the future.

Positive reinforcement, bias prevention, and withholding judgment are good ways to develop empathetic leadership. But it also helps show leaders how to equip employees with the skills and mental strength to overcome adversities.

3. Acknowledge Everyone’s Input and Accomplishments

Recognition is among the crucial elements of employee satisfaction and productivity. Everyone likes to know whether their work and effort make a difference. Companies must establish acknowledgment programs and habits, teaching leaders and managers to express appreciation for their employees’ accomplishments. They should also practice these behaviors within teams to develop a culture of recognition and ensure no one’s input is overlooked.

4. Cultivate Work-Life Balance

Unreasonable workload and numerous demanding assignments can make employees feel overworked and make it hard to nurture work-life balance. It can also cause them to believe their managers are uncompassionate and only want the projects done.

It’s recommended to be attentive to employees’ schedules and the number of current assignments to ensure they have enough time to complete everything. However, it’s also necessary to provide a certain flexibility level, enabling people to have time to rest and be present in their personal lives.

5. Prevent Burnout

Burnout has become increasingly present in the workplace during the pandemic, and most people have worked long hours. That also breeds stress, anxiety, and depression. Empathetic leaders introduce relevant policies and procedures to ensure no employee deals with more workload than they can handle. They also nurture well-rounded mental health programs and well-being initiatives.


Contrary to popular belief, fear rarely motivates people. It’s an inefficient and dated technique that has no place in modern society and the post-pandemic world.

On the other hand, empathy inspires people, encourages them to explore their potential, and accomplish their goals. Nurturing and advocating for empathetic leadership is crucial for instilling trust and creating a positive work environment where productivity and motivation thrive.

About Dr. Ryan Giffen

With over 20 years of experience, Dr. Ryan Giffen is an expert in human relations and business culture. His career began in hospitality, leading operations and human resource departments for Fortune 500 companies and the like. Not long after, Ryan found his passion for teaching and consulting. He earned a Ph.D. in Hospitality Management with a Human Resources focus from Iowa State University and now works as an assistant professor at California State University, Long Beach. For over a decade, he continues to research and speak on organizational culture, relationship intelligence, and leadership effectiveness. Ryan is also the founder of Inospire, a company helping bosses and employees build stronger relationships with one another. Lastly, Dr. Giffen is the producer and host of the Corporate Shadow Podcast, a show helping everyday employees build stronger relationships with their bosses and organizations.