How to Become a More Empathetic Leader

BY Kathy Crosett
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When your team members come to you with a potentially life-​changing personal problem, how do you react? These interactions can be an opportunity for you to become a more empathetic leader and to make a true connection.

Your Initial Response

If a team member opens up to you about a deeply personal problem, thank them for sharing the information. They may not feel comfortable telling anyone else in the company about it. Their willingness to talk with you shows that they trust you. What you do next is important. Only 36% of sales reps who participated in our Voice of the Sales Rep survey say that their manager understands and values them as a person. You can improve your reps’ feelings about you by becoming a more empathetic leader.

You may find it incredibly challenging to support an employee who’s taken you into their confidence. After you hear the news, take a moment to think about what to say. All too often, we fall back on a greeting card remark, such as, “God won’t give you more pain than you can bear.” We then wish our employee good luck and rush off to the next meeting and call over our shoulder about how your team member can call on them any time they need help. In actuality, we may be relieved to escape this emotionally charged situation.

Hmm. Do you think your team member will feel empathy from that kind of response? Of course not. You can do better than this. As Laura Click points out on Medium, when another person initiates this kind of conversation with you, it’s best to start by “acknowledging their pain.” It’s perfectly fine to say something like, “That really sucks.” Then, slow down and encourage your employee to keep talking. Ask them how they’re doing. Are they able to sleep? Have they been able to get satisfactory medical care?


In cases like this, some managers are tempted to talk instead of listen. Before you know it, you end up talking about your similar medical condition or the death of one of your relatives. Don’t go there. Your team member needs your support. They’re don’t need this conservation to be all about you.

Actions Taken by a More Empathetic Leader

You should be thinking ahead about actions taken by a more empathetic leader. What responsibilities might this employee need help with in the coming weeks or months? If it’s appropriate, ask them if they need assistance applying for a personal or medical leave. Depending on your office culture, you may organize a collection to help them with meal cards, so they don’t have to worry about cooking or paying for food for the next few weeks. The actions you take to show support will mean more than what you say.

Employees may also worry about their jobs during these situations. Let them know they are valued and that you’re willing to work with them as they navigate through their personal challenges.

When you display this kind of empathy, you’ll win the support of your employee in need. You’ll also demonstrate the behavior you’d like to see from all of your team members.