C-Suite Agenda

Six Behaviors Senior Executives Can Practice to Develop Cultures of Empathy in their Organizations: The Relational Intelligence Skill of Understanding Others

Dr. Adam C. Bandelli

Recently, a CEO that I coach asked me, “How can we build a culture of empathy in my organization? Can empathy be learned?” It’s a fascinating question and one that leaders have been asking since the start of the COVID-19 global pandemic. They are asking this question more and more because today’s workforce has changed. Employees are no longer looking for just pay, title, and promotions.

They want to be part of inclusive organizational cultures where investments are made into their professional development. Instead of putting shareholder value above all things, great companies are becoming more empathetic to their people. This is not only to attract new candidates, but also to retain their workforce amid increasing expectations of what employers owe to their people. 

Empathy is generally defined as a natural tendency to share and understand the emotional experiences of others. It is the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling and putting ourselves in their shoes.

Today, as the workforce continues to evolve, empathy is often discussed in organizations. However, according to the 2021 “State of the Workplace Empathy Study,” carried out by software company Buisnessolver, “Only 1 in 4 employees believe empathy in their organizations is sufficient.” So why does empathy remain such a rare commodity in the workplace? And how can CEOs and senior executives, practice the right behaviors to create more empathetic cultures? 

The number one key to developing a culture of empathy is the relational intelligence skill of understanding others. Understanding others is the ability to be intentional about putting in the time and effort needed to get to know your employees on a deep level. For empathy to be modeled and put into practice consistently, employees need to feel supported by their senior leaders. The only way to do this effectively is by taking time to get to know your people individually. 

Understanding others requires a leader to have good self-awareness and EQ. This enables them to process their own emotions when interacting with colleagues. It requires strong active listening skills. This creates the psychological safety needed for your people to feel that their thoughts, opinions, and perspectives matter. It is also about being curious and inquisitive.

Empathetic leaders ask probing questions to learn about the backgrounds, history, and experiences of their employees. To effectively understand others, leaders must be genuine and authentic. This lays the foundation for relationships to develop over time and for empathy to become part of the fabric of your organization.

If you want to help your people develop greater empathy, practice these six understanding others’ behaviors:

  1. Consistent Communication:
    Empathy is built on communication. The more you communicate with your people the more opportunities you have to strengthen relationships. It helps you understand your employees better. It gives them a chance to get to know you as well. But it is not just about the frequency of your communications, it is about “how” you communicate.

    Are you genuinely interested in getting to know all your team members? Can you build trust by being honest and transparent with others? Great communicators adjust their approach to meet the needs of different stakeholders. It’s about having the adaptability and agility to meet your people where they are and not where you think they need to be.

  2. Creating a Common Language:
    Often times, the word empathy can mean different things to different people in the workplace. Is it bringing your whole self to work? Is it cultivating niceness? Is it making space for sympathy and allowing employees to air grievances? Or is it senior leadership modeling vulnerability? It is important to clearly define what empathy means for your organization.

    This starts at the top in the c-suite. When a common language is created around empathy and relationships at work, there is greater alignment around how it should be modeled and practiced at all levels of your company.

  3. Modeling Authenticity:
    To break down traditional workplace barriers and create a healthier and more empathetic company culture, it is important to find ways to be more authentic about your own life and work experience. At some organizations that already have a strong empathetic culture, the concept of experience-sharing may be enough to increase empathy and support within the work community.

    For other companies where this is a newer practice, consider small steps like bringing in a culture expert to discuss empathy in the workplace. With everything you do in the workplace, bringing your life experience and truest self to work is always the best way to ensure that you are supporting your people and teams. 

  4. Developing Your Emotional Intelligence:
    EQ is a skill all people should learn. Our ability to understand our own emotions and those of others is critical to developing empathy in the workplace. The first step to strengthening your emotional intelligence is to take an EQ assessment. There are a number of these types of tests that you can find online that are similar to the Myers-Briggs or the Enneagram.

    One assessment that we regularly use with clients is the Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i). It is a great tool to give you insights about your emotional and social skills. You can then work with an executive coach to further develop and improve your EQ. 

  5. Practicing Active Listening:
    Active listening is an acquired skill. Most people have some propensity for it, but great empathetic leaders make it a habit of listening to others. I’ve learned that the best way to improve this skill is to practice it in different settings. Find time each month to meet with each of your direct reports and make the focus on the meeting on their development.

    Listen, provide guidance, and offer feedback. Let them know that you care about who they are becoming and not just what they do today. Practice active listening with your peers and leaders above you in the organization. You can build more relationships in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years trying to get people interested in you. 

  6. Seek Out Feedback & Observe Others:
    Everyone has an opportunity to grow when they get feedback. Leaders who are humble are able to listen to input from others and make improvements.
    This is one of the best ways to foster a culture where people can give and receive feedback in an honest, candid, and empathetic way.

    It is also important to find mentors and role models in your organization who practice the relational intelligence skill of understanding others. For them, empathy is not a buzz word they use at company retreats. It’s part of their wiring and how they build dynamic, transformative relationships with others. 

If you want to make empathy part of the fabric of your organization, your senior leaders must be intentional about the relationships they build with employees. Understanding others is one of the key relational intelligence skills that must be mastered to do this. It opens the door for building inclusive cultures where empathy and trust can develop at all levels of your organization. 


Written by Dr. Adam C. Bandelli, Founder & Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates and author of RELATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: THE FIVE ESSENTIAL SKILLS YOU NEED TO BUILD LIFE-CHANGING RELATIONSHIPS.
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Dr. Adam C. Bandelli
Dr. Adam C. Bandelli is the Managing Director of Bandelli & Associates, a boutique consulting firm focusing on leadership advisory services and organizational effectiveness. He is the author of the book Relational Intelligence: The Five Essential Skills You Need to Build Life-Changing Relationships, which will be available everywhere books are sold in May.


Adam C. Bandelli is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.