Leading with Empathy: A discussion with business psychologist Craig Dowden, Ph.D.


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“The best thing leaders can do right now is not think about what they want, but think about what the people around them – employees, friends, family, customers and stakeholders – need”

By: Darren Raycroft, Partner, Bedford Consulting Group

The capacity to understand what others are experiencing isn’t just a nice to have quality; it is a proven hallmark of the best leaders in the world. And right now, it is perhaps more important to be an empathetic organizational leader than at any other time in history.

Business psychologist Craig Dowden is an expert on leadership and empathy and a Forbes best-selling author of the book Do Good to Lead Well: The Science and Practice of Positive Leadership. Respecting social distancing protocols, I had the pleasure to recently interview Craig via videoconference. What follows is a discussion that illuminates how positive, empathetic leadership will help you not only navigate through these challenging times, but will also serve you well as a leader post-COVID.


Darren: Why do you believe showing empathy is so important for leaders, especially during this crisis?

Craig: Empathy has been declining in our society for over 30 years. Yet when you look at the data, empathy is heralded as a core competitive advantage. It’s the third strongest predictor of executive excellence and the top predictor of ethical leadership.

In our current environment, acting empathetically and ethically is extraordinarily important. Now more than ever, people want to feel understood and supported. Employees need to feel like their leaders “get them” and care about them. They want to feel safe to talk about what’s really going on. The same applies to customers. They want to know how business leaders are navigating this crisis.  Are they trying to sell their latest and greatest product or engage in price gouging? Or are they reaching out to customers to ensure they are ok and exploring opportunities for enhancing relationships?


Darren: Many leaders have to make tough decisions now which may result in people losing jobs. How can a leader be compassionate when people’s jobs are on the line?

Craig: The key is to involve employees in decisions every step of the way and be open when communicating the challenges. Bring people together, be candid in terms of how the pandemic has affected the top and bottom line, and present the different pathways forward.

If you can come up with a collective decision, such as going down to 4 days a week instead of laying people off, you are showing people compassion and empathy. But if there is no way around layoffs, tell people why and explain how it is being managed in a way to minimize the impact on people. I have worked and spoken with CEOs who have handled the situation in this way; the good will it brought and what it did for the reputation of the company, was amazing.


Darren: The workforce, literally overnight, has gone to a ‘virtual work from home environment.’ How does a leader rapidly adapt and build followership in this new virtual landscape?

Craig: One of the primary ways we interpret the meaning behind communication is through tone of voice and body language. In this virtual environment, it’s really important to take advantage of technology, i.e. videoconferencing versus phone call, so people can see each other while they work from home.

Be proactive by reaching out to people. Check in to see how employees are doing and what they need from you. It’s a great way to build effective engagement and a sense of community and it really drives home the empathy message, ‘I care about you.’ Also, make sure you involve employees in determining what needs to happen to maintain your level of connection in the virtual environment.

Remember that as a leader, people will look to you for guidance on how to act during this crisis. People will see the actions you take and the words you use and likewise, the actions you don’t take and the words you don’t say. In a crisis, this is amplified, so be mindful of your behaviours.


Darren: By the time most people are in the C-suite, they are typically well established in their careers, with fairly entrenched behaviours. How can a leader learn to act with empathy at an advanced stage of their career and particularly right now?

Craig: Although changing behaviour can be challenging, it’s not impossible. It’s like a muscle that you haven’t used. The good news Is that you have the ability to strengthen it and build it up. There’s a wonderful study with physicians who went through an empathy training program. It showed patients noticed a clear difference in the doctors’ empathetic behaviours, afterwards.

Like any habit, if you go out and practice it for a while, it will become embedded. It also helps to build a community of support around you who are advocates in helping you to change your behavior. They then become implicitly invested in your success.


Darren: ‘Treat others as you want to be treated’ is what you call a Golden Rule in our society. However, in your book you say it’s flawed; it should be ‘treat others the way they want to be treated.’  Please explain why and how your approach needs to be applied by leaders today?

Craig: The great psychologist Dr. Robert Hogan (an iconic expert on organizational leadership) has found that leaders tend to reward, interact and recognize employees the same way they want to be rewarded, interacted with and recognized. But if the leader asked each person how they actually wanted to be rewarded or interacted with, their answers would be very different. Leaders can’t make assumptions that they know exactly how their team wants to be treated or what their team needs from them.

The best thing leaders can do right now is not think about what they want, but think about what the people around them – employees, friends, family, customers and stakeholders – need. And the way to do that is to ask probing and open questions to find out. Leaders often focus on coming up with the best solutions for people, but the best solutions are out there. It’s your job to consult with your people to discover them.


Darren: Many organizations establish integrity as a core value. You have written extensively about evidence that demonstrates when we lead with integrity, we achieve more. Discuss this.

Craig: Leading with integrity is a business imperative. A study by the Corporate Executive Board surveyed half a million employees in 85 countries. It clearly showed integrity drives corporate performance. To expand on that, managers who exhibited their corporate values improved employee performance by 12%. Employees working in a high integrity culture were two-thirds less likely to observe significant instances of business misconduct. Companies that value and practice strong openness and communication deliver, on average, a 5% better shareholder return than their peers.


Darren: In today’s unprecedented environment, there is no proven playbook and a great deal of pressure and personal responsibility for business leaders to do the right thing. What counsel are you giving to leaders?

Craig: To navigate through these challenging times, I am advising leaders to understand the concepts of pressure and stress, from the Centre for Creative Leadership. Pressure comes from the demands that our external environment places on us. Stress is our internal belief of our ability to dealing with those demands.  That’s why people have completely different responses to stress. The data also shows how stress can undermine our decision-making abilities and harm both our psychological and physiological health.

As leaders, you play an invaluable role making people feel they have the support systems in place to navigate this crisis and that includes you, since we all need to feel we have adequate resources at our disposal to work our way through this.

So my counsel is for leaders to take an audit of their situation. Look at the pressures you are facing and see where there are weaknesses in the system: Where do you need more support and resources and what steps can you take to get them?  Simultaneously,  you need to ask your team what supports do they need as a group and as individuals? Have engaging conversations with people to directly ask them these questions. All of this will enable you to maximize resilience, which is essential as we navigate this crisis.


Darren: What do you believe will be the lasting impacts of leading with empathy beyond this crisis?

Craig: We are at a pivotal point of inflection. How leaders use this situation to connect in a different way with everyone and reflect on their own empathy, will determine how they move forward as a leader. This is a time for leaders to look at the challenges and opportunities; to assess and even rethink who they are and what concrete steps they and their teams can take to get through this and be prepared to get back on their feet quickly when it’s over.


Darren Raycroft is a partner with The Bedford Consulting Group, an executive search and leadership development consulting firm headquartered in Toronto. 

 Craig Dowden (PhD) is a highly respected executive coach, award-winning keynote speaker and the best-selling author of Do Good to Lead Well: The Science and Practice of Positive Leadership. While we continue to navigate these times of great uncertainty, Craig is offering complimentary live webinars on the science and practice of resilience, which are based on his keynote presentations.


To register for Craig’s free resilience webinar on April 16,  and for April 22 .