A New Approach: Functional Empathy & Leadership





Minou Hexspoor




Empathic leadership?

Whether in our workspace, at the sports’ club, within our families or even in our own households, we all lead in some way or another by being who we are being towards ourselves and others. Since we all have different personality traits, we have different leadership styles, and even within those, we lead in different ways.

One leadership approach that has been the buzzword in recent years, and will continue to be – especially in the workplace – is empathic leadership. But what exactly is empathic leadership? What does empathy entail and how can you lead from an empathic point of view? And why is it so important to do so? When is Empathy Functional or Dysfunctional? Hoe can we learn to be more Empathic? Let’s take a closer look at those questions.

For some, empathy comes naturally, a gift they are born with that helps them easily feel and understand the emotional status of someone else. For others, the word empathy can be a nightmare, as ‘feeling other people’s feelings’ couldn’t be more absent from their skill-set than it already is. Or maybe, you find yourself somewhere in the middle. Wherever you fit on the scale of empathy, for both natural empaths as well as those who wish they had more of it, empathy can be a complicated and multifaceted space.


Find out why Empathic Leadership is important

What is empathy?

In order to explain what empathic leadership is, we first dive into what empathy is. Empathy can be defined as ‘the ability to understand and be sensitive to another person’s feelings, thoughts and actions’. It means being able to put oneself in another’s shoes and imagine how they must be feeling in the situation that they have found themselves in, and how that is impacting them.

Looking at this definition, you might think of people you know that are empathic by heart, people for who empathy comes naturally. However, empathy is not only a trait. It can be a conscious value you choose to operate from, and, most importantly, it is a skill that can be acquired and/or developed over time. That means that people who are not naturally empathic can actually learn to become empathic, which can transform both their private and work life.

What is empathic leadership?

We all know that empathy is a quality that bodes well for leaders. However, its power is often underestimated. There is a significant different between a leader that shows empathy and a leader that actually leads from empathy. An empathic leader, therefore, is someone who has a genuine interest in his/her team members’, their feelings, the challenges they face and what they are desiring professionally.

This kind of leader makes an effort to understand what others are going through or are aiming for, and offers them support and/or help. An empathic leader will strive to build relationships with his/her team built on trust.[1]

Why is Empathic Leadership important?

As I mentioned before, empathic leadership is continuing to grow in popularity. And for good reason, because empathic leaders help employees to get the best out of themselves with the help of a deeper understanding of the relationship between feelings, performance and purpose. Let me explain why with an example through the eyes of an employee.

Example 1

Let’s say you have something important you want to discuss with your manager at work, such as the fact that you can’t carry the workload that you currently have. You are quite dreading the conversation, because you tend to get very nervous and jittery when you want to discuss things that matter with someone who is senior to you. Also, you’re afraid that your manager might not understand where you’re coming from, since your manager works very hard, makes a lot of extra hours to get the job done and is as committed as you are.

They are not necessarily the best in listening to the needs of others, has a high sense of judgement and expectations, and your manager is pretty overwhelmed themselves. How will your manager react when you admit that you need some of that workload lifted in order for you to function properly…? You’ve been stressing about this conversation for weeks, you haven’t been able to sleep well last night and you break a sweat even thinking about the conversation.

Example 2

Now, imagine wanting to discuss the same issue with a manager that you know is prone to listening to what you have to say, someone who you feel has your back, even if you can’t cope with everything all the time. This manager understands where you come from whenever there is something you need to get off your chest and thinks in solutions, which results in finding one that suits both you, your manager and your team without leaving you with a feeling of guilt or shortcoming. Would you still be as stressed about having to have that conversation? My guess is that you would sleep just fine the night before meeting with your manager and you feeling appreciated, understood and heard afterwards.

This example is one of many that illustrates how important it is to have empathic leaders. An empathic leader doesn’t scare you, they motivate you, help you to work productively and – above all – make you feel comfortable. Also, the empathic leader promotes empathic relationships between all members of the team, making your workspace one in which you feel appreciated, working on a team effort. A leader that shows empathy to their team will create a team that shows empathy towards one another, thus leading to a more comfortable workspace where people trust one another (and will almost certainly book better results, too).

The Empathy Spectrum & The Empathy Radar

Since we all have different backgrounds, personality traits and (work) environments in which we (are expected to) take the lead, we each approach leadership in a different way, whether we’re empathic leaders or not. During the twenty years of my career and professional development, empathy has always been at the core of everything; as a value, a trait and an ever-increasingly developing skill.


Because my chosen point of departure is that of empathy, I started seeing that different people show their empathy in different ways and with different approaches. This means that there are multiple types of empathy that can contribute to being a conscious leader, that you can learn about, adopt and use as genuine approaches in different situations and with different people.

Based on these different kinds of empathy, I am currently developing a new methodology that I call Functional Empathy: an approach leaders can use to learn to be more empathic leaders and to cultivate an empathic leadership approach. When I speak about Functional Empathy, the first question I often get is, ‘what do you mean with functional?’. So, let us zoom in on that.

Empathy as a Spectrum

We can think of the empathy as a spectrum. Some people are naturally gifted empaths who feel and pick up everything of everyone. They are on the extreme end of the Empathic Spectrum. On the other end of the spectrum are those who might wonder what all that empathy buzzing is about and do not believe they have that natural Empathy Radar they might see in others.

Being blessed with natural empathic abilities can be a both a blessing and a curse. Being able to feel/pick up other people’s feelings and emotions and have a certain level of understanding what they are experiencing, can indeed be a wonderful gift. It can also, however, lead to continuous draining of energy, a never-ending stream of drama and unfulfilling relations and achievements. When we haven’t learned how to use our empathic gifts in a useful manner, dysfunctional empathy is often the result.




When we haven’t learned how to use our empathic gifts in a useful manner, dysfunctional empathy is often the result.

These are seven common consequences of dysfunctional empathy, that in particular empaths might recognize.

Seven common consequences of a lack of empathy in Leadership 

For those lacking the Empathy Radar, the frustration can be of feeling in the dark about how others are really experiencing their work environment, their collaboration with others or how they are doing in general, and wish that they had a more functional way of checking in with people that feels both authentic to themselves and empathic for the other. They might wonder where to even start start with using something that they believe they do not possess.


Introducing Functional Empathy

Functional empathy refers to empathy that is applied for a specific activity, purpose, or task. The value of empathy, empathy as a personal trait, and the skill of knowing how and when to make empathy functional, are all very different aspects of empathic leadership. Empathic Leadership has been on the forefront more and more in recent years… to create healthier, more successful and happier work environments.

Being empathic however, doesn’t mean that it always serves you or the other person, as we saw in the previous section. Not knowing when and especially HOW to use your empathic abilities, or not knowing how to cultivate it, can lead to the exact opposite of what we want. We risk to avoid conflict to spare people’s feelings, we could be avoiding taking decisions because of other people’s feelings. We may fail to address what needs addressing, because we’re concerned about people’s feelings. We might pick up feelings from others in ways that do not serve us or the other.

I’ve been on a journey with empathy for a long time, and that journey is now leading to the development of a method, a completely new and different way of looking at empathy and how to apply it consciously and purposefully in life, work, and leadership. Empathy is not just a trait that you have or don’t have; it is a multidimensional skill that can be learned, strengthened, and practiced.

And that is where the word Functional comes in. Empathy in itself is not necessarily functional; it is more like a potential: if you learn to use it well and with purpose, it can become one of your most powerful tools in your role as leader and getting the very best out of people. The same goes for those who are less emphatically gifted: you can learn and cultivate an empathic approach to do the same. Functional Empathy offers that solution: an approach that can help leaders, wherever they are on the Empathy Spectrum, to adopt empathy as a value, a trait and a skill, with value, effectiveness and purpose.

Different types of empathy

As said earlier, empathy is not just a sense of feeling other people’s feelings. Empathy can play a role in your life in different ways, as a value, a trait or a skill. Empathy can show up in a functional or dysfunctional way, and it is up to us to learn how to master the art of Functional Empathy.

Empathy could get in your way when you are hindered or negatively affected by other people’s feelings. Or because you are worried about hurting them. Often that originates from a desire to be liked, to belong and to be accepted.

Functional empathy refers to knowing your values, understanding your traits, and putting your empathic skills to practice when useful and desired so they serve you and others in a healthy and forward-moving way.

To start exploring Functional Empathy, for now, I would like to start with introducing three types of empathy: sympathetic empathy, intellectual empathy and holistic empathy. Each of these types of empathy allow you to connect with someone in a different way. As you can see in the model below, there can be an overlap between the types of empathy. You might say that a person that is able to combine all three types of empathy is the most capable of using Functional Empathy in the way they lead others.



Let me elaborate on the three different types:

Sympathetic empathy: When you embody sympathetic empathy, you are able to feel both physically and emotionally what someone else is feeling. This gives you the ability to really experience what the other is experiencing, thus feeling empathic towards them because you can share their feelings. Sympathetic empathy stems from physical sensations and mirror neurons in the brain. It can support close interpersonal relationships and be quite useful in some aiding professions as well as in friendships, especially when feelings and experiences are shared. However, it can be overwhelming or even inappropriate in certain situations and can drain energy and cause drama and stress, especially if not combined with a level of detached involvement that separates your own judgments and interpretations from those of the other.

Intellectual empathy: When you embody intellectual empathy, you are able to understand how the other is feeling and what they might be thinking. Without actually being able to feel what the other is experiencing, you can understand what they are going through and how they might be experiencing that. Intellectual empathy stems from intellectual understanding and rational thinking. It can help you motivate others, understand different points of view, negotiate and collaborate. However, because it stems from the head, this type of empathy might be disconnected from deeper emotions, limiting one to connect on a ‘feeling’ level, possibly resulting in missing what’s really going on beneath the surface. Simply having that awareness, can already help you to look under the surface more consciously.

Holistic empathy: When you have holistic empathy, you are able to holistically feel with someone and take the appropriate action. You cannot just feel what someone is going through, but you know what you have to do in order for them to cope with what they’re experiencing. Holistic empathy stems from both intellect and emotion, as well as intuition. It helps to take a non-judgmental, holistic approach towards the person and their context, which makes it ideal for interpersonal relationships and aiding professions. Therefore, this is the type of empathy that we ideally develop in our lives as a way of leading others and ourselves. It can sometimes get in your way when there is a need to push forward your own agenda.

Although there are more types of empathy, these three in particular give you a starting point to check in with yourself what kind of empathy you are currently good at, or would like to develop more of. You might discover that you thought we weren’t empathic, but after reading those first three types, you realize that you actually are. It might just be different from what you thought it meant to be empathic. During the coming months I will dive deeper into Functional Empathy and share more types and ways forward, with you.

Functional Empathy will provide you with the values, traits and skills

Empathic leadership throughout all aspects of life

So, there you have it: empathic leadership does not only lead to more motivated and functional employees, it can also lead to better results in the workspace. Empathic leadership isn’t limited to our work environments alone, it can make quite an impact in our personal lives, too. Taking lead in an empathic way can help you become a better partner, friend, mother, you name it. Functional Empathy will provide you with the values, traits and skills to use empathy in the most successful and purposeful way regardless where you are on the Empathic Spectrum or how weak or strong your Empathic Radar. So, stay tuned because more is yet to come