Blog 17.1.2024

A leader’s empathy is one of the organisation’s most important change skills


Showing empathy is a skill that can and should be learned to maintain performance during changes and ensure the well-being of individuals. It is particularly crucial in change management. Empathetic leadership emphasises understanding and acknowledging people’s emotions. It helps team members to act resiliently – for example, to managing stress, recovering from challenging situations, and performing under pressure. What kind of behaviour is empathetic, and how can we unintentionally fail while trying to act empathically?

Empathetic leadership supports employees’ performance

In these days, one cannot overemphasise the relevance of resilience – the ability to anticipate changes and adapt to them – as an important skill of an organisation, community and individual. One highly important and supportive resilience factor is people valuing leadership and culture (Seville, 2017).

Servant, coaching leadership style shows direction and support employee initiatives, participation and strengths. It is an example of people valuing leadership, where a leader’s style of co-operation and communication is essential.

According to research, good leader communication and interaction includes three elements: showing direction, building meaning and showing empathy. It has been observed that leaders often emphasise first of these, while other elements stay underused (Mayfield & Mayfield, 2018). However, among these dimensions of leadership empathy has been found to have strong connections to the development of employees’ resilience.

What is empathic leadership? 

Empathetic leadership highlights understanding people’s emotions and the willingness to consider them in one’s own behaviour (Kock et al., 2018). It has many good effects – in addition to supporting resilience, it improves the quality of interaction and promotes the leader-member connection (Yukl, 2012). The good connection strengthens the communication and enables joint change awareness (Seville, 2017). 

Empathetic leadership style helps manage stress and recover from challenging situations. It helps individuals believe in their ability to achieve goals and think clearly in pressured situations. They also tolerate failures better. All these are key characteristics of a resilient individual. (Wibowo & Paramita, 2022). 

Empathy pitfalls and how to avoid them

But what empathy is actually, and how can I, as a leader, coleague or friend, develop my own empathy? 

An enlightening perspective on the deepest essence of empathy for me has been Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead (2018). In her book, she highlights empathy pitfalls, which each of us has undoubtedly witnessed and unintentionally also practiced. The key idea is that we might inadvertently make someone feel worse when trying to comfort them. So, what are these empathy pitfalls then?

Empathy pitfalls include, for example:

  1. Feeling pity instead of showing compassion. Which sounds more like showing empathy to you:

“It’s a pity, I feel sorry for you. That sounds really bad.”


“I haven’t experienced that myself, but I understand that it’s a difficult situation, and you’re not alone.”

Notice the difference between feeling sorry and standing alongside someone? Can you identify situations where you meant to stand by someone, but instead unintentionally felt sorry for them?

  1. Your colleague or team member tells you that they messed up a meeting invitation, causing an urgent matter could not be adressed on time. The person is very upset about it, and in order to comfort them, you share a story of an even worse mistake you made!

It’s a nice thought to comfort someone by saying that mistakes happens to everyone, but doing so, you shift the focus to yourself. The situation might end with the other person comforting you, instead of feeling heard and seen and comforted with their mistake.


Empathetic leadership seems to have a big role, urgent need, and huge potential in supporting employee resilience. Methods like active listening helps to develop empathy. It should be an ability that every leader has.

Increasing empathy is one part of Gofore’s Change leadership development training path. Our training provides excellent preparation to support people even in challenging change situations.

Read how our intelligent industry and digital society customers have benefitted from our training


Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Random House. 

Mayfield, J. and Mayfield, M. (2018). Motivating Language Theory-Effective Leader Talk in the Workplace, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY.  

Seville, E. (2017). Seville, Erica (2017): Resilient organizations: How to survive, thrive and create opportunities through crisis and change. London, Philadelphia, New Delhi: Kogan Page. 

Wibowo, A. and Paramita, W. (2022). Resilience and Turnover Intention: The Role of Mindful Leadership, Empathetic Leadership, and Self-Regulation. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, Vol. 29(3) 325–341). 

Yukl, G. (2012). Effective leadership behavior: What We know and questions need more attention. Academy of Management Perspectives, November, (4), 66-85. 

change management

Minna Janhonen

Senior Change Consultant

During her long journey as an organisational developer and researcher, Minna has consulted numerous organisations in their change processes and strengthened their capability for change. Experience has taught her that successful change requires transformation both in mindset and in daily lives. Systemic viewpoint is essential when trying to understand true effect of the change: it often has different consequences to various individuals, roles and parts of the organisation. From an individual perspective, ownership is crucial: when a person is involved in the change process, the change happens within them, not to them.

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