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Driving employee engagement through empathy

A leader without empathy can be compared to an engine without a spark plug — it simply won’t engage.

Recent research suggests that leaders who practice empathy have a more engaged and higher-performing team, as well as a more profitable business overall. When people reported their leaders were empathetic, they were more likely to feel that they were able to be innovative—61 percent of employees compared to only 13 percent of employees with less empathetic leaders. 76 percent of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged compared with only 32 percent who experienced less empathy and 50 percent of people with empathetic leaders felt that their workplace was inclusive, compared with only 17 percent of those with less empathetic leadership.

The connection between empathy and mental health

Mental health, stress and burnout are now perceived as responsibilities of the organisation, not individuals. In a global study, two in five (41.6%) respondents said their mental health had declined since the outbreak of COVID-19, while 57.2% reported higher levels of anxiety. Empathy can play a vital role in addressing these issues as it helps to create a sense of belonging, reinforcing the belief that employees’ perspectives matter and their voices are heard.

Leaders don’t have to be experts in mental health to demonstrate they care and are paying attention. Empathy in action is understanding an employee’s struggles and offering to help, appreciating their point of view and engaging in a healthy debate that leads to a better solution. This requires active listening to what someone is dealing with and asking the right questions to gain a deeper understanding. One of the best ways to show empathy is through conversation.

It is of strategic importance to increase the value of each team member and listen to their feedback, acknowledging and empowering their role and expertise, so that everyone can feel valued. An empathetic leader is one who takes time to regularly check in with their team, and uses the time to see, dimensionally, how people are doing —not just with work tasks, but also in terms of their broad mental health.

Retaining talent with empathy

When people feel understood, they are more receptive to others’ concerns. Empathy in the workplace results in an engaged workforce, and that translates into a stable business. The empathetic organisation embraces a culture, starting in the C-suite, that practices and values empathy, meaning developing emotional intelligence at the enterprise level, and genuinely listening to employees’ feelings.

Empathetic leadership is a skill that is especially valuable for building work cultures where people choose to remain. When leaders exercise empathy, they cultivate a workforce that trusts their decisions, demonstrates high morale through tough times and feels empowered to help the organisation to move forward.

The failure to deploy empathy means less innovation, lower engagement, and reduced loyalty, as well as diluted diversity. Empathy is the basis for human connection, it promotes growth and change by sparking the feelings of interpersonal support that are necessary for taking risks. While some people are naturally more empathetic than others, with practice and feedback, empathy is a skill that can be learned.

At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at


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