Leading with Empathy

Leading with Empathy

Katie Hamilton, Head of Experience at Club Sandwich HR, has created this article as part of our Locimo Experts series.


Even before 2020, you’d be hard-pressed to find a business that hadn’t been through their share of ups and downs, and uncertain times.


While there are some good news stories where uncertainty and unpredictability has allowed businesses to evolve and adapt in ways they never thought possible, in general, rapid and/sustained uncertainty is bad news for business, team morale and consumer confidence.


It’s during these times that leaders need to be particularly self-aware and take a very close look at their own behaviour, asking themselves “am I contributing to destructive behaviours and feelings, or am I leading myself and my teams to a more productive dialogue?”.


If you’re feeling that all eyes are on you, then rightly so. How you react as a leader (and organisation) will be remembered by your teams long after there is a new semblance of normality. You are likely feeling that you need to have all the answers or know exactly what to do.


Well the good news is, how you lead during times of uncertainty doesn’t come down to knowing exactly what to do, but more about how you make your team feel.


Doing this well starts with empathy. It’s a crucial skill at all times, but even more so in times of turbulence and uncertainty.


In the current environment, ambiguity and anxiety is heightened. Even individuals that empathy comes more naturally to, may feel drained or that it’s increasingly more difficult to implement. But like many soft skills, building empathy is much like building muscles – through regular and consistent training.


Not sure where to start? Here are some ways to lead with empathy:


Become an active listener


Active listening required both verbal and non-verbal cues in order to have your team feel that you truly care. Consider your body language, eye contact, and other non-verbal cues such as nodding and smiling.


Avoid interrupting or talking over the top of the speaker and promote further depth to the conversation by asking questions, reflecting back what’s been said or asking for more clarification.


Leading with empathy often involves saying very little. While it can feel most natural to want to become an immediate problem solver, often it’s just as effective to make sure the speaker feels they’ve been heard.


Practice presence


If you feel scattered and distracted, your team will likely pick up on that too – this will have the opposite effect on building trust and a safe space for them to open up about what they are experiencing.


Plus, if your mind is genuinely elsewhere, and you’re unable to focus on the now, you won’t have the appropriate capacity to listen and respond in an empathetic way.


When you are in an intentional conversation with someone, turn your phone to silent, close your laptop, be genuinely present and focus on what’s being said.


Be accessible


As a leader, you’ll be faced with scenarios that are uncomfortable and unsettling – and let’s face it, sometimes it feels like it’s a whole lot easier to hide away than to make yourself visible and accessible.


Now this isn’t to say that you have to be available every waking moment, but make sure you communicate to your team when your door is open (metaphorically or otherwise). Where possible, get out and about and work that frontline with your teams.


Humanise yourself


Often when we form connections with others it’s because we are sharing a common emotion. Don’t feel that you have to always look like you have “got it together”. By sharing personal anecdotes, particularly your challenges, you can build stronger rapport and make yourself more relatable to others.


A word of warning; be careful not to flip the conversation into a monologue about your own life – it’s a fine balance to be conscious of. 


Promote connection and belonging


As humans, we have an innate desire to be connected and belong to a tribe. Whether 2020 saw your teams move to remote work, split shifts, rotating rosters, the rapid disruption to day to day work likely had an impact on their connectivity. Create space to have conversations that aren’t solely focused on work or tasks to create deeper connections. Build shared goals so individuals feel that they are contributing to something together, as a team.


Finally, be kind to yourself


As a leader, you are performing your “usual” role and duties under the additional stress of escalated health and safety risks, rapidly changing policies, and not to mention your own personal work-life challenges.


So if it feels like a lot, that’s because it is.


You will not be able to lead effectively if you are also struggling, so be sure to reach out to your own support network and look out for ways to continue to take care of your own needs. As an added bonus, if you role model wellbeing and self-care, it’s likely that your team will follow suit.


Leading with empathy is powerful – not only does it help you to truly understand others’ perspective, it creates stronger psychological safety so that your team feel heard and supported. Taking an empathetic approach to leading your teams, will allow you to be far more likely to stop the early signs of overworked or disengaged employees.




Katie Hamilton is Head of Experience at Club Sandwich HR. Club Sandwich HR are your side-kick, your secret weapon, in leading and managing a successful team. By utilising their extensive knowledge of people in the workplace collected from years of traditional HR roles, project management, consulting and managing teams, Club Sandwich HR have your HR in the bag, so you can focus on what you do best!


The team specialise in partnering with business owners to manage, support and develop their teams in a manner that is commercial, collaborative and champions workplace culture.


They combine the science of psychology, their business and HR experience and a little bit of fun, to ensure their clients are compliance covered, supported through processes and projects, and work within a culture they love.