• Empathy is the most important leadership skill for our troubled times.
  • A new survey finds that, without it, people feel undervalued and excluded.
  • In business, empathy encourages innovation and helps people cope with stress.
  • And without it, people are more likely to quit their jobs.

How empathetic is your boss? A new study shows that empathy has a direct impact on innovation, inclusion and the success of female and minority community workers.

Global not-for-profit Catalyst, which campaigns for more women in leadership positions, surveyed around 900 US employees and found that almost two-thirds of people in organizations with an empathetic leader are innovative at work, compared to just 13% where the boss lacks empathy.

More than three-quarters (76%) of people whose boss demonstrated empathy said they felt engaged at work
More than three-quarters (76%) of people whose boss demonstrated empathy said they felt engaged at work.
Image: Catalyst

More than three-quarters (76%) of people whose boss demonstrated empathy said they felt engaged at work while just a third (32%) felt the same way with an unempathetic boss. And the study shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the importance of empathy.

A separate study, last year, on the effects of the pandemic on mental health, reported that two-fifths (41.6%) of employees in the US thought COVID-19 had harmed their mental health. Two-thirds (66.9%) said they were suffering from stress and over half (57.2%) had increased levels of anxiety.

Manager empathy affects employee inclusion.
Manager empathy affects employee inclusion.
Image: Catalyst

The extent of the mental health impact was underlined in the Catalyst report by the fact that, even with an empathetic boss, over half (54%) of women had suffered from high levels of pandemic-related burnout. But unempathetic bosses drove that figure up to two-thirds (63%).

The pandemic effect

The report says the pandemic has been particularly hard for women, especially those from minority ethnic groups whose communities have suffered most from COVID-19. Where bosses lacked empathy, only two-fifths (40%) of non-white women said they felt valued and respected.

The report says the pandemic has been particularly hard for women, especially those from minority ethnic groups whose communities have suffered most from COVID-19.
The report says the pandemic has been particularly hard for women, especially those from minority ethnic groups whose communities have suffered most from COVID-19.
Image: Catalyst

But when the boss displayed empathy, the survey found that the proportion of people feeling valued and respected leapt to over 80% across all ethnic groups and genders. People were also much less likely to quit their jobs if they had an empathetic boss.

We need more empathetic leaders

So what is empathy and how can we cultivate empathetic behaviour? At the World Economic Forum’s recent Sustainable Development Impact Summit, Evelyna Christina Wever-Croes, the prime minister of Aruba, said it went beyond offering sympathy.

“To be empathic is to try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand how people think, what drives people,” she said at a session entitled ‘Women’s Leadership in Times of Crisis’. “Empathy is the single most important quality that we need in all our leaders.”

The stereotype of the “hard-nosed, pointy-elbowed, win-at-all-costs” leader was no longer fit for purpose, said Caroline Anstey, CEO of global development non-profit PACT. A more empathetic style was needed, she said.

People were also much less likely to quit their jobs if they had an empathetic boss.
People were also much less likely to quit their jobs if they had an empathetic boss.
Image: Catalyst