HomeSocial Impact HeroesAuthor Laura Barker: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

Author Laura Barker: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Growth — You will grow faster and higher using empathy to lead you. Empathy results in increased emotional intelligence, it supports a growth mindset which reinforces resilience, and is closely linked to innovative behaviours like embracing new ideas and thinking creatively. Empathetic leaders encourage growth by stepping outside their comfort zones which promotes a growth model that others can follow.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Barker.

Laura Barker is a Career & Leadership Coach with professional designations from the Co-Active Training Institute and the International Coaching Federation. When she is not supporting her clients professionally, she enjoys facilitating powerful training. She has trained leaders at Fortune 500 companies as well as professional women’s groups. Popular leadership topics include networking, especially how to craft brilliant elevator pitches, as well as how to build — and sustain — a positive mindset.

Laura worked as a senior HR leader for over 20 years and uses her experience and knowledge for her weekly blog, Life fully loved, that she amplifies through her YouTube channel and her podcast.

Laura has spoken professionally and has written for publications like The Globe & Mail. She has also published a book called Career Advice: What I Wish I Knew When I Was 24.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I spent most of my career in Human Resources and then shifted to project management. My intent was to find meaningful work, one that served a greater purpose than just a paycheque. Despite my efforts, I didn’t find it in HR or PM.

It took a well-meaning friend, a coach herself, to steer me in the right direction.

I began by identifying my values: connection, kindness, and curiosity. Values led me to purpose: I saw my purpose as providing clarity in a world filled with “non-sense.” Big picture: I wanted to build a kinder, gentler world. But how?

For me, it’s always about people. I love connecting with people. I defined my mission as connecting people ɪɴᴛᴇʀɴᴀʟʟʏ so they know who they are and ᴇxᴛᴇʀɴᴀʟʟʏ so they can fulfil their purpose.

I acted decisively. I studied and got certified as a coach then used all the skills I already had from HR and PM and applied them in a different context.

Nowadays, every time I coach someone I feel grateful doing the work I love to do and making a difference in a way that’s meaningful to me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I was conducting a workshop called Crafting your Elevator Pitch for a Fortune 500 company’s international women’s conference. A young woman from my workshop approached me afterward to speak one on one. She had recently switched careers and it seemed like her career trajectory was moving upward.

The catch? She had a really hard time meeting people. Her desire to connect was apparent but she couldn’t find others with whom to connect. She found it hard to meet people in the hybrid workplace because of continuous misalignment of who was in the office and when.

Her main goal — to meet peers and people around the same age — wasn’t happening. She wondered about how to enact my advice from the workshop, “Don’t forget to network across, not just up (or down).” In other words, it’s just as important to make connections with those at the same level as you because as you move up, they will too.

I suggested she join internal, cross-functional committees at work, ideally that required in-person meetings, and that she start meeting people external to the organization by joining industry-specific groups that often have meet-ups. In fact, there’s a website dedicated simply to meet-ups!

As someone later in my career, I realized I’ve gained the benefits of physically working in the office that our younger generation has not. She keenly felt how she was missing out. It’s an unintended longer-term consequence from the pandemic and will likely take time to stabilize. Nevertheless, where there’s a will, there’s a way, as the saying goes. This young woman will do great, first of all because she cares about connecting with others and secondly because she’s doing something about it.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I believe the self-awareness you gain from knowing your values makes the difference between leading a purpose-driven life and one with no compass. Your values motivate you intrinsically and identifying what drives you internally empowers you to “be the change” you want to see in the world.

When you know yourself, you can build a vision which answers the question, How do I make my time count? Leaving a legacy isn’t for rich, old men; it’s for everyone.

I coached a senior leader in the insurance industry. After identifying her values, she gained clarity about who she was and what she represented. From there, she could create the vision she wanted for her division. It became the backbone of her communication strategy that she returned to repeatedly. She became known for her values because she clearly articulated them in strategy meetings, conferences, and client presentations. Moreover, she became a model for younger women moving up the ranks because she unashamedly led her team as a values-based leader.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Curiosity — When something is going wrong, curiosity gets you farther than judgement. When faced with tough situations, it’s easy to go into judgement mode and talk about what’s wrong and who’s to blame for it. A more successful strategy, however, is to approach tough situations with curiosity, asking open-ended questions to find the heart of the problem. People respond better to curiosity as opposed to judgement.

I had an employee in my office, very upset about something happening in her private life (this was when I was working in HR). I knew this employee had performance issues and her manager had spoken to me about them. However, I didn’t know why her performance was lagging despite urging the manager to have a conversation with her. Once she explained, it made sense.

Had I approached the discussion with an air of judgement, she would have shut down immediately and become defensive about her performance issues. Instead, I asked “what” and “how” questions and she opened up immediately. In fact, I think she only needed a sympathetic ear in order to move forward. Curiosity works.

2. Empathy — Again while working in HR, I had an employee struggling with mental health issues. Her English was poor and I could see she needed help but was stuck because of the language barrier and her lack of skill using computers. So, I researched therapists who spoke her language in order to facilitate an initial appointment.

I imagined what I’d do to help a family member in the same situation. It wasn’t hard because I’m a child of immigrant parents. Empathy helped me be a better leader to someone in need.

3. Listening — During COVID, we had executive team meetings via Zoom. I would listen to what other leaders said and then reiterate it to make sure what I heard was what they meant. For example, I’d say, “What I’m hearing is … Is that what you’re saying?” It would give the leader an opportunity to course correct, agree, or disagree with what I said but it started with active listening. Listening is a key factor in being a successful leader.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

Before transitioning to leadership coaching, I had to face a hard choice between continuing on my current, objectively “good,” path as a senior HR leader or taking a chance to become my own boss.

Had I continued on the HR path, I would have continued to grow professionally but I could see my growth hitting a ceiling. The decision to become a coach shaped me profoundly. Now I see my growth happening organically and it feels truly limitless.

My leadership choice required aligning with my values — connection, curiosity, and kindness. I felt the best way forward for me meant choosing to work as a leadership coach as opposed to a senior HR leader.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

Empathy in a leadership context means heart-based leadership. Heart-based leaders, not surprisingly, lead with their values. They are clear on what’s important to them and build frameworks, teams, and visions aligned with those values.

It’s vital trait because it’s not enough to only use your rational mind as a leader. While left-brain data-processing and analytical thinking may have gotten you to the top, it’s not what people actually seek in a great leader. What’s valued in the best leaders are traits associated with the right brain, which is intuitive, heart-based, and good at identifying patterns. Empathy is the gateway to the right brain and the best leaders have empathy in spades.

There’s a wonderful quotation from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to emphasize this point on empathetic leadership: “All of my best decision in business and in life have been made with heart and intuition — not analysis. When you can make a decision with analysis, you should do so, but it turns out in life that your most important decisions are always made with instinct, intuition, taste, and heart.”

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

I recently had a conversation with a former colleague who felt frustrated by the behaviour of another leader at leadership meetings. The other leader preferred to engage in the style of “radical candour” espoused by Reed Hastings at Netflix. While he likes to bring up non-agenda topics that are bothering him and have an open-ended discussion about them, my former colleague strongly disliked that approach. She prefers receiving an agenda ahead of time and wants time to collect her thoughts so she can thoughtfully explain her viewpoint and proposed solutions in meetings.

By clarifying her work preferences versus his, she could then see his approach wasn’t an attack on her — because she would close up in those situations — but just his preferred way of addressing problems. A little empathy from me who has worked with both of them created awareness that it wasn’t that one way was better than the other; they just had different ways of approaching things.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

Empathy does not mean, “I agree with you.” Empathy means, “I acknowledge how you feel.” In other words, empathetic leaders account for their team’s feelings in their decision-making.

Acknowledgement doesn’t mean, “You’re right and I’m wrong” or vice versa. While empathy may involve harmony-seeking behaviours, it doesn’t always. It depends on a leader’s behavioural drives; some leaders are collaborative by nature, others have a stronger need to influence outcomes.

However, tough decisions, which we call “tough” often because they’re not universally popular, means evaluating subjective feelings as well as objective data. An empathetic leader uses both sources of information, subjective and objective.

By acknowledging the team’s feelings, leaders can often uncover patterns or new connections that weren’t available using only the rational mind. In sum, empathetic leaders take in what’s around them and then make decisions for the greater good, which may not be popular immediately but pay off in the long run.

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

Brene Brown beautifully distinguishes between empathy and sympathy in Atlas of the Heart. She says that empathy is a tool of compassion; it’s about connecting to what someone is feeling about an experience. Sympathy is the “near enemy” of empathy. It disconnects us, creates distancing behaviour, and ultimately is a trigger for shame.

Notice that empathy builds connection whereas sympathy causes disconnection.

Empathetic leaders connect to their team, their business, and themselves. They connect their purpose to their vision and in so doing they move from making their “big goals” about them and instead make it about what’s good for everyone.

Sympathy has the element of “I’m better than you. Aren’t I a great person for listening to you right now? Now let me tell you what to do.” Sympathy is ego driven. Empathy is “other driven.”

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

Listening is the best way to cultivate and enhance empathetic skills. Stephen Covey’s Habit #5 describes listening well: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. He uses the phrase to define effective, empathic listening. Leaders do it by echoing words and feelings and then responding with “I” messages.

For example, an employee didn’t finish a project on time. Empathic leaders would ask what happened, listen to what the employee says, reiterate back to the employee what they heard to ensure clarity of communication, and then provide their point of view by saying, “I understand what happened. I feel frustrated when projects don’t finish as scheduled. What can we do to prevent this from happening again?” This invites the employee into seeing the leader’s perspective and makes the employee part of the solution going forward.

Here are three (3) practical ways leaders can develop empathetic listening skills:

  1. Start with the intent to understand what the other is saying. Ask for clarity if you’re confused. There’s no shame in seeking clarity, and you will strengthen the social bonds between you and the person with whom you’re conversing.
  2. Practise focused listening: Pay attention to what is said and implied through words, tone of voice, and body language. Use your five senses. This is fact-based listening.
  3. Try intuitive listening: Seek a gentler way of listening by responding to the emotion in any given moment, looking for the deeper meaning behind what is said. This is heart-based listening.

When in doubt, consider the words of the Dalai Lama, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know.” Empathetic leaders listen to learn what they don’t know.

Effective listening creates connection, which is what empathy is about. Connection happens by listening to understand instead of listening for a pause in conversation to win the point.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

In an increasingly complex world, it’s normal to feel stymied by all ways to navigate working with people. I’ve seen it over my 20+ years of experience in HR, project management, and now as a coach.

The best response for navigating these complexities is empathy and the number one tool you can use to lead diverse teams and ensure inclusivity is simply to listen with an open heart.

Listening whole-heartedly isn’t weakness. It’s about witnessing someone else. Through the act of listening, empathetic leaders initiate connection. Leaders deliver the message, “I see you. I acknowledge you.” When people receive that message, 99% of the time it’s enough to move any seemingly immoveable mountain.

A willingness to listen, to hear the other side, creates trust. Once trust is established, these complexities can be seen in their true light. Diversity opens doors to many ways of thinking. Inclusivity is achieved through the simple act of connection.

What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?

Too often succession planning is taken as a top-down approach. There are obvious challenges to this way of thinking: inherent bias, senior leaders’ personal experiences with specific individuals good or bad that colour a perspective later taken in succession planning meetings, and simply forgetfulness.

Dunbar’s number says humans can only maintain about 150 connections at once. It means that, despite the complexities of modern life, humans are still hardwired to sustain social relationships with 150 people. That’s it. In a nutshell, that’s why top-down succession planning doesn’t work. Because of human nature, those not in visible roles get lost in top-down succession planning.

A better way to do succession planning holistically is to allow those who want to move up the ladder to advocate for themselves instead of having managers, HR, and senior leaders as the gatekeepers in succession planning. Let interested employees submit their career goals to all of the above (manager, HR, senior leaders).

Check assumptions as well. Many leaders assume everyone wants to move up the ladder but it’s not true. Just because you’re good at this job doesn’t mean you want your manager’s job or that you’d be good as a leader because, as discussed, great leaders don’t rely on technical skills. They’re great because of their right-brain, empathic skills.

Instead, I recommend asking questions to interested employees that identify the soft skill leadership traits they have. Make them provide specific examples demonstrating those behaviours. Empathetic leaders-in-waiting will be able to provide examples of empathy, regardless of context, that show they possess that skill.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

Here are five (5) ways empathy specifically impacts leadership:

  1. Insight — By leading with empathy, you develop greater insight. Using the key skill of empathetic listening, you learn what others are thinking and feeling. You understand the strengths and blind spots of team members, find solutions from a broader perspective, and motivate others through your own self-awareness. In consequence, you enable yourself to guide your team more effectively.

For example, I led a leadership workshop recently. Halfway through a visualization, I could see one of the participants nodding off. However, the rest of the group was fully engaged. I could have responded by calling out the sleepy participant or stopping the visualization until I caught her attention. That would have been at the cost of the other interested participants. Empathy led me to continue as is. I knew the reason for her tiredness from an earlier discussion we had, and I knew the others were enjoying the visualization. Empathy gave me insight into how to proceed.

2. Better Communication — As Brene Brown says, empathy builds connection. You can’t help but become a better communicator as a result. The best communicators connect directly to their audience and that’s what empathetic leaders do. They discern when they’re losing the audience and pivot as necessary to re-engage them. By sensing how the audience is feeling, empathetic leaders respond to that emotional energy as opposed to staying “in their head” which creates disconnection or separation from the audience.

Using the Insight example of the leadership workshop I conducted, had I stopped the visualization mid-way, I would have destroyed the emotional connection I had created through my narrative. Instead, I sensed how the audience was feeling — good, engaged — and stayed aligned to it.

3. Growth — You will grow faster and higher using empathy to lead you. Empathy results in increased emotional intelligence, it supports a growth mindset which reinforces resilience, and is closely linked to innovative behaviours like embracing new ideas and thinking creatively. Empathetic leaders encourage growth by stepping outside their comfort zones which promotes a growth model that others can follow.

For instance, I chaired the Strategic Planning Committee for an independent school. We had an annual retreat, which I had participated in but had never led. As the Strategic Planning Chair, I had to organize it. By stepping out of my comfort zone of participant and shifting to leader, I grew professionally. I showed a growth mindset by incorporating content of past retreats and then creating something new. Innovation happened by developing the retreat’s structure around questions instead of topics. Empathy makes you grow personally and professionally.

4. Positive Workplace — Practicing empathy promotes a kinder, happier work environment. It encourages reciprocity among teammates in your organization. By demonstrating empathy, leaders give space for others to do it too which creates a positive, virtuous cycle. Empathy fosters understanding which transmutes into acceptance. As Stephen Covey says, Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. Using empathy as your foundation, you listen to understand which results in a positive workplace.

For example, I conducted new-hire orientations for many years. I liked to imagine myself as a new hire wanting to learn what’s important about their new workplace home. What would I want to know? I was fully aware of Drucker’s “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” There’s official-speak and then there’s the reality of how things actually get done. Empathetic leadership meant explaining to new hires what was important and how to get it done. Creating a positive workplace happened by setting up the new hire for success, not just with physical resources but mental and emotional ones too.

5. Trust — A person who truly listens to another — and thus practices empathy — engenders trust. Stay present, ask powerful questions, listen carefully to the answers, and reiterate key messages to ensure you heard what the other person is saying. Following this empathetic method of communication ensures you will be seen as a trusted leader.

In meetings, I use empathy regularly. I listen to what others state, ask questions for clarification when needed and then share what I heard. At one company I worked at, it became a joke in team meetings that eventually became a behaviour that others practiced too.

To this day, I still have people tell me, “You taught me, ‘What I’m hearing you say is … Is that what you’re saying …?’” It works, not just in meetings as I initially used it, but when working with patients or clients too. And the result? It builds trust because the recipients feel heard.

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

The only challenge empathetic leaders need to be aware of is establishing clear boundaries. Without creating appropriate boundaries, empathetic leaders can potentially get drained.

To thrive in the long term, empathetic leaders need to define what is “in scope” versus “out of scope.” If you listen to someone’s personal problem at work, ask what the other person wants from the interaction. Do they want advice? A listening ear? It may not be appropriate in a workplace setting to provide personal advice but that’s a decision every empathetic leader must make, using blameless discernment not judgement.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

I think we’re living in a time of great disconnection. Exacerbated by social media, the longer-term effects of the isolation experienced during the pandemic, and the splintering of political views without common meeting ground, these are the thoughts that keep me awake at night. They influence my daily decision-making in multiple ways.

First of all, I choose to find ways to connect people internally and externally.

It starts with having people look within and connect to themselves — what they value, what they want from life. I do this daily in my coaching.

Then it’s about connecting individuals to the larger whole. What do they want to contribute to the world? When a person knows who he is and what he wants, he can share that with others. This in turn allows others to model that behaviour.

External connection is taking your purpose, creating your vision, and bringing it to fruition. This is where empathetic leadership is needed. To create the world you want, you must take an active role. As Gandhi says, “Be the change you want to see.” You do that by inspiring others to take part in fulfilling your vision. Help people feel like they belong and you create external connection.

I help people connect both ways through my coaching, facilitating, weekly blogs, and LinkedIn posts. I want to teach the value of connection in everything I do.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want to build a kinder, gentler world. If enough people identify what’s important to them, what drives them intrinsically, and then applies that through their actions, whether it’s a job or project or volunteering, it will change the world for the better. When people feel good, they do good. Simple. And when they do good, they create a kinder, gentler world.

How can our readers further follow you online?

They can sign up sign up for a free 30-minute 1:1 coaching session with me, subscribe to my weekly blog, Life fully loved, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.

Author Laura Barker: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.