Be it expanding on self-awareness or empathizing with juniors, effective bosses have set guidelines that drive their work. A new book, 6 Habits of Highly Effective Bosses, by management coaches Stephen E. Kohn and Vincent D. O’Connell, shows managers at every level how to avoid the “flash points" that inevitably cause problems with staff. Edited excerpts from the chapter Habit 2, Practicing Empathy.

More on the Empathic Manager

6 Habits of Highly Effective Bosses , By Stephen E. Kohn and Vincent D. O’Connell Jaico, 222 pages, Rs250

When they lead individual and group or team meetings and seek input from others. Empathy drives the sincere interest in receiving input, and it helps assess the common threads or trends from the responses within the overall group, helping to mould these common threads into mutual team understandings.

During periods of change. Empathic managers take the pulse of their people during periods of rapid and significant transition. They try to understand the issues with which people are trying to cope as pervasive change occurs. Certainly, gauging the level of anxiety about longer-term future is important to do. This understanding may result in any of a number of sensible managerial responses: convening more staff meetings; sending more email updates or broadcast voice mails to keep people better informed; having 1:1 meetings with staff to allay individual fears; refuting quickly any unwarranted (and often untrue) speculation around the office about what additional changes are down the road; and simply being more available to people.

In performance reviews. When the objective is to motivate the person to higher levels of performance. An empathic manager tries to understand what the employee is feeling in the review and works with this understanding to conduct the performance appraisal in a way that yields the feedback-sharing outcomes that the manager desires.

When considering special requests Having empathy helps managers read situations, such as the extent to which a special request deserves to be treated as “special". It is a skill that helps managers understand the difference between showing favouritism and showing responsiveness to a special need.

These are just examples of practicing empathy. In reality, managers need to practice understanding and responding to the unique circumstances of others at all times, whenever they interact with others or consider ways to get their team to perform at the highest level. Empathy is a critical communication skill that becomes engrained in a people-oriented management style.


Empathy is a trait that is driven by an orientation outside of oneself, to other people and to their feelings and their needs. It is a skill that is characterized by caring about people. Empathic managers tend to be adept at creating a more thorough understanding of situations and of individuals and groups who work for them. For the empathic manager, this focus on understanding situations and others supersedes an interest in being understood, or in having the managers’ own views understood by others. Listening skills are at the core of empathy. Effective managers listen, and they prioritize listening. They remove the clutter in their mind and provide their staff with the emotional presence and “psychological air" to show that they value what they are hearing, that they are willing to take the time to find out what their staff’s input is. Effective managers read situations well, based on their interest in getting inside the other person’s frame of reference, to see what this other person sees, so they can understand the situation better. They use techniques that facilitate other people’s ability to learn about themselves.

Can practicing empathy become a habit of those whose first inclination is to see things only from their own perspective, from the vantage point of “how does the situation affect me"? We believe it is a habit that can be learned. There are techniques to practice empathy that, when used regularly, can become engrained in a more empathic communication style.

Write to us at