Empathy: A Key Management Skill

A great place to start improving your management skills is by developing the ability to empathize with others.

Managers with empathy for employees

Many years ago I worked in an organization that was very task focused (to say the least). Whenever we tried to introduce some training or new processes that weren’t task related (e.g. interpersonal skills or management skills training, communication strategies) they would be dismissed by the majority of the workforce with the mantra ‘it’s too fluffy’.

I guess, at first glance, empathy as a management skill could be seen as a little bit ‘fluffy’. After all, isn’t empathy what therapists, psychotherapists and counsellors use? Isn’t it a step too far to say it’s one of the key management skills?

I’d say no – based on this definition of ’empathy’ within a management skills context:

The ability to understand someone else’s point of view, thoughts, preferences and feelings.

My view of empathy is that it’s not just about feelings – about being able to ‘feel your pain’. It’s about having a real understanding and insight into your employee’s mindset. It’s about getting to know your employees in some depth in order to understand what ‘makes them tick’.

Empathy – What’s the point?

The simple principle is the better we know an employee the more effectively we can manage them. What most employees respond very well to is a manager who takes the time to get to know them as an individual. A manager who can see the world – at least some of the time – from their point of view.

So, how do we develop the management skills of empathy? Here are three ideas:

Recognize, accept and appreciate differences

It’s difficult to be empathetic unless we recognize, accept and appreciate that people in the workplace are different. For example, many of us have very different ways of:

  • Organizing ourselves and our work – from people with a high preference for structure to those who prefer a high level of flexibility
  • Relating to others – from people who are highly extroverted to those who are highly introverted
  • Gathering and using information – from people who prefer a practical approach to those who prefer the more creative approach
  • Making decisions – from people who like to use an analytical approach to those who prefer to base decisions on personal beliefs

The reality is we find it much easier to empathize with people who have similar preferences to us. More of a challenge is when there are real differences. Let’s take a quick example:

  • Manager A likes to use a flexible, extroverted, practical and analytical approach to work
  • Employee B likes a structured, introverted, creative and belief driven approach

Can you see the challenge for Manager A? Can you see the frustrations that might arise if this manager doesn’t make some attempt to understand, recognize and accept their employee’s point of view, thoughts, preferences and feelings – to empathize?

Start to build empathy

Here are two questions the manager could use as a starting point to build empathy:

  • What would it be like to have a preference for a structured, introverted, creative and belief driven approach?
  • What might it be like for this employee to work for a manager like me -with all my (different) preferences?

These questions are simply about developing a curiosity about our employees (because curiosity is fundamental to empathy).

Ask questions

So here’s a pretty obvious idea. If you want to better understand your employees – their point of view, thoughts, preferences and feelings – why not ask them some focused questions. You could use the work preferences I’ve outlined above. For example:

How do you prefer to organize your work? Do you prefer a structured or more flexible approach? Can you think of any ways we could improve this for you – to more closely fit your preferences?

Or, as a simpler approach, you could ask what I call the ‘golden question’:

Is there anything I could do; more off, less off or differently to improve your job satisfaction?

Can you see how this question could get you some real insights into your employee’s preferences particularly around how they prefer to be managed? Can you see how effective this question could be in building empathy?


One of the key management skills, in any context, is the ability to listen. When seeking to demonstrate empathy it’s vital. However many of us don’t find it easy to listen well – particularly when we’re listening to someone with very different views, thoughts, preferences and feelings. If we want to be empathetic, we need to put aside our own thoughts, ideas and preferences so that we can really listen to the thoughts, ideas and preferences of our employees.

Developing empathy is a great way of building relationships. It demonstrates that we are interested and respect the individualism and diversity of people and that’s why it’s such a key management skill.

About the Author

Joan Henshaw is the author and presenter of the 10 Minute Management Toolkit management course. She has been working as an independent management trainer and consultant for more than 10 years specializing in helping managers learn how to motivate their staff to high performance.

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