Empathy: Four Keys to Building Trust and Effective Leadership in Teams


Empathy: Four Keys to Building Trust and Effective Leadership in Teams

The skill of empathy can be perplexing for leaders to develop and use because often it is the opposite of what they needed to get where they are today.

You may have read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, a leadership fable by Patrick Lencioni, which delves into the dynamics of team dysfunction and provides practical insights on overcoming these challenges to build a cohesive and high-performing team. Lencioni’s book explores common pitfalls that hinder teamwork, including trust issues, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. The book teaches leaders that to have a healthy team, they need to cultivate trust, encourage constructive conflict, foster commitment, establish accountability, and prioritize focus on collective results. The foundation is TRUST.

For years, leadership gurus have talked about building trust. We often think about things we do to build trust like:

  • being in integrity and keeping our word
  • following through on commitments and being dependable and reliable
  • having good communication about who will do what by when and designed to how we know
  • following up and remembering what was discussed
  • taking care of things and making sure the team is provided for



These are still good and needed, however, in today’s collaborative and diverse work environments, building trust requires more. Leaders grapple with the emerging and growing need for a more authentic, open, and transparent approach while driving revenue, getting results, and creating highly productive teams. While most leaders desire to empower and engage team members more, it is necessary to build greater skills to embody the next level of integrity, empathy, and open communication.

The skill of empathy can be perplexing for leaders to develop and use because often it is the opposite of what they needed to get where they are today. Many leaders have drawn from their personal reservoirs of grit, determination, perseverance, calculated risk, and resilience. This can create confusion when someone needs empathy for a challenge or hardship because often what “leaders” have done to get where they are, has used other skills to overcome, leaving them stronger with the push than the sit, rest, care, and concern type postures more parallel to empathy.

As our personal and work landscapes continue to change and evolve; different variables increase the need not only for leaders to develop the skills to sit, rest, and access greater care and compassion for themselves, but also for others. In doing this, leaders can find greater access to the skill of empathy, which is a growing skill needed to build trust. You know the adage, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

For trust to be present in a company and with leaders, people need to experience and know a leader has empathy and care for them. Without it, it quickly feels transactional, devalued, unappreciated, and used. It plants seeds of doubt on a leader’s motives and raises skeptics of actions being in the company or leaders’ best interest but not theirs. It does not feel like a win-win, but a company–leader wins and the team/support person loses. People are growing increasingly intolerant of this, and a paycheck is not enough to compensate them for their sacrifices. As the caution, questions, and skepticism grow, productivity decreases and people turn to take care of themselves and find their own balance, boundaries, and limits to what they can and will do at what personal expense.

To flip this unhealthy trend that erodes trust due to a lack of empathy and care, leaders must intentionally build their empathy. Simon Sinek says, “Leadership is not about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in your charge.” Stephen Covey encourages, “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”

So the big question is how to build empathy to contribute to that important trust foundation.

  1. SELF-AWARENESS: The first thing is being aware of empathy and your feelings toward it. Often leaders respond, “I am not good at that” or other reasons why they have a pass to employing empathy. To have empathy starts with an attitude and willingness to be empathetic in the first place.
  2. HAVE HEART: Empathy is not a head/thinking thing. It is a heart thing. When you allow yourself to “feel” for others, you begin to be more present with them to understand and connect, creating safety and positive space for learning, processing, and growth.
  3. NOTICE: Daniel Goleman comments, “Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways.” When you notice how things impact and affect people, it changes the way we act and approach things. Maybe it is how you frame an announcement, making sure to not SCARF people in your announcements (SCARF ARTICLE). Maybe it is noticing a broken or strained relationship that needs checking in on. Maybe it is stopping to value and appreciate those who work the hardest for you. Notice where there is all push and care needed. Remember the job of leaders is to remove obstacles and things that make people work hard or challenge-drain them. When a leader notices this and works to remove those, it is a form of empathy because you see them, which makes things hard and helps to lighten the load.
  4. PRACTICE: Notice when others need empathy. These are usually times when people are stuck and struggling. Seek to understand. It doesn’t mean that you are coddling or enabling their behavior or the problem; it means you are SEEING THEM. Seeing people and caring enough to stop, slow down, be present and check-in are caring and having empathy for others. It means not getting impatient or judging how they are reacting or handling something but listening below the surface to why this is upsetting to them. It means understanding what they need, which might be advice, resources, or solutions but it also might just be venting for a minute or simply being understood for how they feel or the impact of the situation on them.

There is much more to empathy, but an important motivator for leaders to develop the skill is realizing that it is instrumental to developing trust. As leaders, we erode trust if we lead without empathy. In years past, leaders had more of a pass, empathy was for HR, the admin team, the person friend, the water cooler, not the leader. Today empathy starts with the leader and creates a culture of trust and safety or a production house that is quickly becoming less and less popular and tolerated. Developing empathy skills is not quick or easy but a slow evolution found with increasing awareness and taking time to practice. It is worth it.

How have you grown your empathy skills? What do you understand about empathy that is different today than how you saw it in the past? What do you want to do to increase your capacity for greater empathy? How do you balance empathy with results? How have you seen the increase in empathy provide greater results? What is your first step?