• Jill Hauwiller

Building an Empathetic Culture through Effective Leadership


Empathy is a core skill of people with high emotional intelligence. It is also a key attribute in organizational cultures that are successful through transformational change and that are committed to being inclusive and diverse. While empathy may come naturally to some, it is a skill that we can all develop and refine with the right mindset. As a coach and consultant, I help individuals and organizations build their capacity for empathy to increase trust, create space for curiosity and innovation, and encourage self-expression and personal development while achieving the desired business outcomes.


Empathy and organizational culture

Organizations often evaluate their culture after a major transformation, like an acquisition or executive leadership change, or a crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic which has elevated leader interest in creating a culture of empathy. These events serve as inflection points for understanding what behaviors, traditions, and values inform business performance.


For example, finding alignment for two leadership teams who need to work together on an ongoing basis following an acquisition requires empathy from everyone involved. Both groups are experiencing changes and bringing the behaviors and values of their previous roles along with them. Finding common ground and a shared vision for the combined organization requires empathy, a curious mindset and lots of listening. Organizations that I have worked with on cultural integration following an acquisition or merger have seen improved alignment on business goals and stronger relationships forming among the leadership team.


Another area where an empathetic culture makes a meaningful business difference for organizations is when it is ingrained in the customer or client experience. Organizations that are successful in helping employees experience a deep connection to the organizational mission provide a better customer experience. Employees know what they are doing and why it matters to the customer.


Empathy is also essential in organizations who are building their capabilities and values around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). For organizations who are experiencing high turnover in employees from diverse backgrounds, taking a closer look at culture, and empathy specifically, can be a step toward retaining talented employees. Fostering a culture of belonging through authentic interactions and relationship building requires empathy.


Regardless of why an organization is prompted to look at its culture and assess how empathetic it is, change and growth in empathy starts with individuals.


Empathy and the individual

Empathy arises as a coaching topic from a few sources. Sometimes the person being coached is dissatisfied with their professional relationships and we identify empathy as a way to strengthen those relationships. Other times, assessments or leader feedback will reveal an opportunity to look at empathy as a way to improve performance and executive potential. A third reason that some clients focus on empathy is the desire to develop higher performing teams.


A coaching client started working with me recently who needed to work on all of those things. She had advanced quickly in her organization because of a willingness to take on any task that was presented to her, often catching up late at night or on weekends. Her leaders appreciated her contributions and rewarded this behavior, but it began affecting her team in harmful ways. She often didn’t get to weighing on team work until the last minute causing significant rework and anxiety for her team. Her input began to feel spontaneous and left her team feeling like they couldn’t make plans. Another risk of this type of work style — working at all hours and lack of boundaries for unplanned work — is that it can make team members feel like they need to adopt the same approach.


Through the coaching process, my client began to set boundaries and ask more questions when requests for new, unplanned projects came in. She came to recognize the impact her previous style was having on her team and started to make adjustments. She learned to delegate more effectively so that she wasn’t taking on all of the extra work. This allowed her team to build their skills and increased her capacity to be engaged and provide feedback and direction throughout team projects which reduced the need for last minute adjustments. Her relationships with her team are improving and she is still recognized for her exceptional contributions.


For leaders with an “all business” mindset, the shift to a more empathetic leadership style can be challenging, but it is a capability worth developing. Empathy enhances interpersonal relationships, which have a strong correlation to a person’s overall wellbeing and happiness. It allows them to more fully understand their colleagues and team members. Conversations about development goals with employees are enriched.


Whether working to evolve organizational culture or grow as a leader, empathy as a cultural attribute and leadership competency is rewarding for both personal and business reasons:

  • Employee engagement and retention increase.

  • Teams are more connected across the organization because interpersonal relationships are valued.

  • Trust and transparency grow leading to better business outcomes.

Taking time to develop skills related to empathy can transform an organization and its leaders from good to outstanding.


This article was originally published on Medium.com.