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IWD 2022: Leading during uncertain times - the rising importance of empathy
Tue, 8th Mar 2022
FYI, this story is more than a year old

We're currently witnessing one of the greatest shifts in workplace culture in history. The ‘control and command' leadership approach born after World War II is fading as more leaders march to a new ‘heart' beat using the power of ‘soft skills' to keep in step with employee needs and drivers of today.

McKinsey Global Institute finds that the number of people in the global labour force will reach 3.5 billion by 2030. This, combined with the mass move to remote work, results in workplaces needing to accommodate a changing range of skills, attitudes, cultures, and behaviours.

I've been lucky enough to have led APAC-wide teams for several years and have seen shifts in leadership even prior to COVID-19. It's easy to only consider globalisation, but we're also working across different generations - a 20-year-old digital native in India is very different from a 60-year-old in India who started their career before the internet was born.

For leaders to thrive in today's environment, they must be willing to exhibit and value core qualities of empathy, trust, and curiosity. When we're able to truly make the most of a diverse team, when we're more open to new ideas, we can significantly improve the employee experience and strengthen the entire organisation.

Soft skills: Empathy, trust, and curiosity

In the past, being a team leader or manager was about command and control. Today, a true leader helps employees discover untapped strengths and potential and align that with business goals. It's about being very clear about the destination and understanding that everyone's path is different.

Empathy has never been more relevant than in the last two years. It's not about being nice; it's about taking the time to be with a person fully and truly listening to them. Doing so really builds trust and enjoyment in their working environment. Soft skills can spell the difference between success and failure between workers and their employer, and in the time of the great resignation, that impact is critical.

More businesses are recognising the role of empathy in the workplace. A whitepaper by the Centre of Creative Leadership found that empathy is positively correlated to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward their teams are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses. Additionally, empathic emotion, as rated by employees, positively predicts job performance ratings from the leader's boss.

This whitepaper also highlighted a fact that I've found to be true in my own experience: that empathy can be learned. Leaders can develop and enhance their skills in this space through coaching, training, or developmental opportunities and initiatives. Self-awareness is critical to this development.

Grant Thornton's 2021 International Business Report research highlights the emergence of empathy as a valued leadership trait. Among mid-market business leaders who grew their staff numbers by at least 5% in 2020, empathy was more consistently important than the global average, with 25% citing it as a key leadership skill.

Empathy in action

Engaging in empathetic leadership can consist of simple practises. For instance, it can be actively listening when on a video call, with the camera turned on, minimising potential distractions, or acknowledging important celebrations or milestones.

We also frequently underestimate the role of technology in aiding our leaders to be more tuned in and empathetic. For example, data is helping to create better, healthier and more open relationships with employees. 
One of our customers, Indonesia's Bank Mandiri, uses data to track employee health. The bank used its data lake to feed a real-time dashboard that tracked employee health, leading to better support for employees. With information on staff working locations and health status across all branches and regions, the bank was able to ensure employee safety as well as business continuity.

This accentuates how data can be used to build a greater understanding of how employees are doing. This lends itself to establishing or extending health and wellbeing initiatives or simply opening conversations.

Goal setting in a pandemic

We've also found that it's been easier to lose track of goals during the last two years. At Cloudera, we've become much better at setting and tracking both personal and shared business goals. We'll talk to our people and ask them what their plans are for the future, where they want to be in the coming year or two and what matters to them in their work.

We can then align this to the broader business goals to empower our workforce. Goal setting is one way we deliberately build gratitude and a sense of service within the team and have that human touch and conversation.

We're also big on leading by example. Acknowledging failure is not a core part of many Asian cultures, so as a leader in the APAC region, it's important to recognise failure and learnings in an honest way and create a safe place to do so, especially when encouraging innovation.

Another example is committing to ‘unplugged days' where my fellow managers and I leave our computers and phones off to take time for ourselves. We actively encourage our team to do the same. Finally, we're always focused on exhibiting empathy, curiosity, trust, and vulnerability within our leadership team to create a powerful reference point for our teams.


With more people experiencing personal hardship, mental health issues, ambiguity and reconsidering their lives, this year requires more leaders to step up and become a mentor, guide and inspiration to those around them.

We do this by being honest and vulnerable and living core qualities and soft skills through key touchpoints. As a result, we will be able to move through this time and engage in growth and innovation by putting people first and being delighted by the rich rewards.