Manager empathy: why it matters and how to start cultivating it

November 10, 2023
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Empathy is a fundamental skill; it allows us to understand, relate to, and connect with others on a deep emotional level.

Very simply, it is the ability to walk a mile in someone else's shoes, feel what they feel, and offer a sense of understanding. Interestingly, our ability to practice empathy is biologically engrained; what scientists have called “mirror neurons” are the neurons that fire when we express emotion – and they’ve found that those same neurons fire when we witness someone expressing emotion as well (Häusser, 2012). 

As a manager, empathy may be one of the most important qualities for you to start leaning into more often. And contrary to what you may think, empathy can be cultivated and improved over time. While personality factors and environmental factors (like how nurturing the environments we grew up in were) can certainly impact our empathy levels, we can continuously work to improve them. And it might be less complex than you think.  

Develop Self-Awareness  

Empathy doesn’t just sound like a nice quality; it can drastically change the way we behave with our employees on a day-to-day basis. Research has found that managers with lower levels of empathy tend to be less fair with their employees (even if they aren’t consciously aware of it), but that this can be moderated by increasing self-awareness. Self-awareness has been found to encourage managers to meet higher fairness standards (Whiteside & Barclay, 2016).  

But how do we actually develop self-awareness in practice?   
  1. One way is to create scenarios that require you to become more self-aware. Using visual cues (like putting up a mirror near our work station) can help us to be more self-aware – this can be an effective way to monitor the way we behave or respond while having a phone conversation with an employee. And if looking at yourself in the mirror feels too weird? Simply taking a couple of minutes to rate ourselves on standards of fairness after specific events, decisions or important conversations can also be effective (Whiteside & Barclay, 2016).  
  2. A mindfulness meditation is another great way to do this. Mindfulness meditations requires us to sit in the present moment, non-judgmentally observing our emotions and physical sensations. And as we mindfully acknowledge what’s occurring in our minds and in our bodies, we become more skilled at doing the same for others. Better yet - these changes can be lasting. Mindfulness meditation has been found to literally change our brains, so the work we put into becoming more mindful can forever improve the way we think, feel, and act with others going forward. (We hope that some of our experiences at Nurau can spark an interest in the art of quick and easy mindfulness meditations – if it isn’t something you’re already into!)  
  3. Consistently reminding ourselves of our individual emotions, motivations, and biases, is going to be important as well. By acknowledging these biases, we can approach conversations with humility and an open mind. Recognizing that our experiences and perspectives may differ from others can help us to take a step back and consider what our teams may be feeling.  


Engage in genuine discussions with your team  

Empathy involves the ability to see the world from another person's perspective. The only way we can truly see the world from someone else’s perspective is to have them share it with us. As humans, we have a natural desire to reduce differences between ourselves and others in order to build rapport, and it’s a strategy we unconsciously use in our day-to-day interactions. It’s critical to acknowledge individual differences, though, and admit when we don’t have sufficient information to understand someone’s experience. We want to engage in more conversations with a genuine desire to learn and understand a person with no ulterior agenda. 

  1. Practicing perspective-taking involves considering how someone’s experiences, background, and emotions may influence their current worldview. When we reflect on the variety of factors that contribute to someone’s experience or behaviour, it allows us to bridge the gap between our own experiences and those of others. And the amazing part is: the more we make these types of reflections a habit, the more naturally our brains will engage in empathy over time.  
  2. Asking open-ended questions is one of the simplest, most underrated ways to encourage our team members to share their thoughts and feelings. By challenging ourselves to ask better questions, we benefit from a more meaningful response. This can help build empathy, as well as rapport. Rather than asking “are you ok?” we can ask “how are you feeling this week?” Or even better: “What has been making you feel ____?”  

Cultivating empathy is an ongoing process that involves self-awareness, and a genuine desire to understand and learn from others. By incorporating a couple of these strategies into your daily life, you can develop a deeper sense of empathy and build more meaningful connections with your team. In a world that often feels divided, empathy is a tool that might carry you farther than you imagine.  


Whiteside, D. B., & Barclay, L. J. (2016). The face of fairness: Self-awareness as a means to promote fairness among managers with low empathy. Journal of Business Ethics, 137(4), 721–730.  

Häusser L. F. (2012). Empathie und Spiegelneurone. Ein Blick auf die gegenwärtige neuropsychologische Empathieforschung [Empathy and mirror neurons. A view on contemporary neuropsychological empathy research]. Praxis der Kinderpsychologie und Kinderpsychiatrie, 61(5), 322–335. 


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