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Leadership Empathy Emotional Intelligence

Leadership, Empathy and Emotionally Intelligence

Whilst Leadership and Management may have significant differences, but they both share one essential element: people. Leadership is often concerned with inspiring people and management often emphasises getting things done through people. In either case, being successful often has more to do with the softer management skills of Emotional Intelligence, than it has to do with technical ability. Continuing our series of posts on the topic of leadership and emotional intelligence, this week we’re taking a closer look at three elements: Empathy, Interpersonal Relationships and Social Responsibility. As with previous articles, our aim is to explain what each element means, why they are important, how we can improve them and the potential benefits for Leaders, their teams and the wider organisation.

Leadership Empathy Empathy Emotional Intelligence


Historically, successful leaders were often better known for being tough, ruthless and single minded. Even today, reports continue of aggressive and divisive behaviour of CEO’s even in some of the most well-known organisations. So, one might question what place there is for Empathy in the repertoire of the successful leader? However, there is increasing evidence for the benefits of empathy to leadership. Before we can consider the value of empathy to leaders and organisations, its worth unpacking what exactly we mean by empathy.

Generally, empathy is described as the ability to understand and share with the feelings of another. It is that sense that we have experienced similar feelings at some point, so we understand how another person might be feeling. Whilst empathy might be a common feature of our private relationships with family and friends, it isn’t something we always employ in our working relationships. Maybe it has something to do with keeping a respectable distance from colleagues and staff at work. There is certainly something to be said for maintaining professional boundaries. So what, if anything is the benefit from leaders showing more empathy at work?

Leadership Empathy Emotional Intelligence Understanding

Empathy, understanding, trust and motivation

Let’s take a practical example: losing out on a sale or order to a competitor even though we put forward a great pitch. Many of us will likely have experienced rejection like this at some point in our careers. When it happens, it can undermine our confidence, cause our motivation to stall and ultimately dampen our enthusiasm to get back out there and try again. As a leader, if you’ve experienced rejection or disappointment like this yourself, you may be far more able to connect with a member of your team who is facing the same situation.  Any advice, support, commiseration and perspective you can give them, will come from a position of first-hand experience. Not only can this give useful feedback to an employee, but it can also establish deeper understanding between manager and employee. Employees will know from their managers that “You have been there yourself”. Having that deeper understanding is the foundation for creating greater trust. When a leader shows empathy which builds trust, its likely that the communication between manager and staff becomes enriched, more candid, more frequent and more effective.

We may be employees, but we are also human beings, with an intense desire for social connection and belonging. Part of that is a desire to be understood and to be treated as an end in ourselves, rather than a means to an end. Empathy provides leaders with a means to connect with their people, tapping into that need for understanding. Clearly the benefits are pretty obvious: happy employees means happy customers and happy shareholders. But there is far more leaders can gain from demonstrating empathy in response to events. Empathy can be taken further by leaders in terms of what we could call “active empathy”. Active empathy means bringing those empathetic skills into play in the everyday work situation. So instead of relegating empathy only to be used occasionally, leaders can use their empathy when it comes to problem solving, making decisions, developing or rolling out a new strategy. Leaders who possess empathy can often imagine how their employees might feel in advance of a change and can then use that information to inform their decision-making.

Specifically, what are the benefits to an organisation from leading with more empathy? A easy example to cite is that of a study of empathy in Doctors in a Korean Hospital which showed that the more empathy a patient perceived a doctor to show, the higher the reported satisfaction rating.

Whilst this relates to patients and not employees, it does establish a connection between being able to demonstrate empathy and having a positive effect on others. When leaders flex their empathy muscles daily, they can connect more deeply with their employees, building greater mutual trust and understanding. Given organisational success is so reliant on people, relationships and teams, then the benefits available to leaders for using their empathy seem obvious.

Leadership Empathy Emotional Intelligence Relationships

Interpersonal Relationships and Leadership

It’s a truism that to be a good leader means having good interpersonal relationships. Whilst we might get promoted to management for our technical abilities, without solid relationships with our team, peers and manager, its unlikely we will succeed. Indeed, having good interpersonal relationships is now a “must-have” requirement for leaders and managers alike. This is such a huge topic area, we’re not going to attempt to cover all aspects in a single blog post. Instead, looking at emotional intelligence, were going to consider three simple things leaders and managers might need to know.  1 What a healthy interpersonal relationship looks like, 2 how to develop them, 3 how to maintain them.

How then should a leader know what is a healthy interpersonal relationship? Just as organisations and people differ, there is no “one-size-fits-all” model for having strong interpersonal relationships. But there are certain characteristics which seem common to healthy interpersonal relationships. Healthy interpersonal relationships are often characterised as: mutually satisfying, authentic, built on trust and compassion, with open and candid communication and clear boundaries.

This last point is important. One might imagine that having great interpersonal relationships between manager and employee means being close to one another and not setting themselves apart. Indeed, setting boundaries sounds more like something a parent would do for a teenager. But boundaries are an essential part of creating strong interpersonal relationships. Having boundaries means establishing shared expectations of what is and isn’t within the scope of that relationship.

To illustrate this point, we can look at the extreme ends of the management and employee relationship spectrum. At one extreme, the manager is overly friendly, more a buddy than a boss. At the other extreme the manager is distant aloof and disconnected from their team. Clearly, this is one of those situations where occupying a middle position on this spectrum is ideal. The bottom line for leaders is to work out where their boundaries lie and communicate that clearly, both verbally and through behaviour, to their team. Communicating is only the start, boundaries might then need to be negotiated between manager, individual and team. Individuals within a team may have different expectations and needs, just as teams might have different expectations and needs. Leadership is about working out which boundaries can flex through negotiation and which boundaries need to be set fast.

Leadership Empathy Emotional Intelligence Relationships

Developing and Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships

OK, this really isn’t rocket science. To foster a good relationship, leaders need to demonstrate interest in their people. Giving people time, asking questions, listening, giving feedback, being approachable, these are all elements which can help foster a great relationship. The same applies to maintaining great relationships. Just like all relationships, building a relationship at work takes time and investment. There are no tricks or shortcuts.

If we were to emphasise a couple of the elements of healthy interpersonal relationships, then it would be authenticity and mutual benefit. Much has been written about being an authentic leader. I’ve included a couple of links to interesting articles on the subject if you’d like to read further. One conclusion is that being an authentic leader is more convenient, easier and more conducive to getting the best from oneself and the team.

The second aspect is that of mutual benefit. Getting the balance right here may require a more nuanced approach. To say that managers and staff need to have mutually beneficial relationships doesn’t mean that they require the same things. Being a leader or manager comes with an element of power differential, whether that power has been appointed by authority or devolved upwards by the group, the manager is in a different position to the team, with different responsibilities and expectations. In this sense, a mutually beneficial relationship might seem difficult, because the manager and employee have a different relationship to power. But this difference isn’t impossible to reconcile. What can be mutually beneficial is when both the manager and employee behave in ways that are true to the expectations of both. To clarify, relationships can be at their best when managers act like managers and employees act like employees. This may sound like stating the blindingly obvious, but that’s because it is. The whole purpose of being a leader is to act like one. When a leader behaves like a leader, employees and teams know where they stand.

Leadership Empathy Emotional Intelligence Social Responsibility

Social Responsibility

Social Responsibility, might sound more like being a good citizen and recycling, or paying taxes, and less like an element of Emotional intelligence or leadership. So why include social responsibility in a discussion of EI and leadership? The simple answer lies in two important aspects of being a leader: acting for the greater good and being role model.

Leaders are expected to look at the bigger organisational picture, which often means they are required to place the needs of the organisation ahead of their individual needs or those of their team. The best leaders find ways to reconcile the needs of the organisation with their own and their team. But when this isn’t possible, leaders are expected to make the right choices and do the right things. Having a social responsibility means understanding the needs of others and the organisation. To do so, a leader needs to do two things: to know what the vision and purpose is for the organisation, and then to behave and live in a way that helps bring it about.

The opposite of Social Responsibility would be acting purely in Self-interest.  Many companies have suffered when leaders who put their own needs first, building their own “empires” within an organisation, sometimes actively pursuing their own interest at the expense of the organisation. Whilst the negative consequences of such self-centred leadership are many, the opposite is also unhealthy. The aim isn’t to become some kind of martyred leader where the organisation benefits at the expense of their individual needs and goals. As with many other aspects of leadership, social responsibility is about finding the right balance between organisation, team and individual needs and goals.

Leadership Empathy Emotional Intelligence Role Model

Role Model

The second element of Social Responsibility is that of the leader as role model. As we’ve seen above, its great if a leader understands what is in the best interests of the organisation, however, that means nothing unless the leader acts like it. Part of the role of a leader is as walking talking role models for behaviour. As the saying goes, you’ve got to walk the walk not just talk the talk. Leaders are expected to behave in ways consistent with both their own personal values and the values of the organisation. It is often said, we can’t always know a persons’ intention or motivation, what we see and interpret in others is their behaviour. In this sense, how a leader behaves is how they are perceived and therefore an essential part of their leadership.

When employees witness behaviour of a manager in direct opposition to the values the organisation upholds, (a so-called values-action gap) they can experience confusion, frustration and even anger. Not only is this extremely bad for morale, but that “bad” role modelling can become contagious and spread. “If my manager doesn’t uphold our values, then its ok for me to be the same”. Social Responsibility takes into account the responsibility we all have for acting in a way that promotes the common good. An example of demonstrating Social Responsibility might be a manager publicly making a stand against racism, sexism or bad behaviour. But it doesn’t have to be such a head-line grabbing activity. A leader who makes a cup of coffee for their team, rather than expecting one to be made for them, is also demonstrating social responsibility.

Why this matter in terms of emotional intelligence? It comes back to the so called “soft skills”. How leaders treat others and behave is directly related to their own emotional self-awareness and the emotions of others. A leader who ignores this aspect of emotional intelligence, is at least missing an opportunity to increase belonging and team cohesion. Or at worst will likely encourage similarly self-interested behaviour which may ultimately sabotage the organisation, from within.

Leadership Empathy Emotional Intelligence Improve

How do we improve Empathy, Interpersonal Relationships and Social Responsibility?

Empathy, Interpersonal Relationships and Social Responsibility: all three elements are essential for great leadership. We’ve discussed some of the reasons why each is important and the impact they can have on the organisation. But one critical element hasn’t yet been tackled: how do we know if we are “good” at any of this? And how would we know if we got “better” at it? How would one measure empathy? Is it even possible to measure Emotional Intelligence? If it isn’t possible to measure, then how practically will we be able to improve?

Leadership Empathy Emotional Intelligence EQI

One answer is to utilise a psychometric tool to assess Emotional Intelligence. The EQi 2.0 model, developed by MHS for example, can provide is such an assessment tool. EQi 2.0, through a series of probing questions, compares responses with a norm group to establish an EQi Score for a variety of dimensions. Respondents are provided with an overall Emotional Intelligence Score, along with more detailed analysis of how they compare on elements like empathy, interpersonal relationships and Social Responsibility. Although each report is unique to that individual, every report is the same in terms of providing two things: a baseline measurement compared with a norm group and a series of recommendations around how to increase a balance across all elements of emotional intelligence.

A balance in Emotional Intelligence is a key feature of EQi as an assessment tool. Although one might imagine that the object is to score most highly in all elements of Emotional Intelligence, the EQi assessment recognises there can be negative effects from scoring too highly in any given area. For example, there may be times when showing too much empathy can have a detrimental effect at work.

Taking the empathy as the example, each report will include a rating of the empathy of the respondent and how their score compared with the norm group. If a score was relatively low, the report would give advice on how to increase empathy.  If the score were relatively high, the report might point out potential down-sides and advice on how to overcome this. Where a score might be right in the middle, the report might suggest advice as to how to get the balance empathy out against the other critical elements of Emotional Intelligence.

Personally, I’ve completed two EQI assessments in recent years. Each time I found plenty of areas where I could improve balance and useful advice on how to put it into practice. As a result, I recommend EQi as an emotional intelligence tool to clients who are looking to develop this ability in their managers and leader.

Leadership Empathy Emotional Intelligence Dove Nest

At Dove Nest we’ve successfully combined EQi assessment with emotionally intelligent leadership development solutions that focus on practical experiential learning that makes a difference.  If you’d like more information on Emotional Intelligence, the EQi 2.0 Assessment model or you’d like to discuss developing greater emotional intelligence for your organisation, then please get in touch with us on 015395 67878, email us at or visit our website at


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