Empathy in Nursing Leadership


Published: 17 November 2015

Being an empathetic leader allows you to understand and respond to the needs of the people you are charged with leading. An inspirational leader will use empathy to understand what support and direction their team members need in order to achieve. Empathy builds rapport.

Rapport exists when our hearts and minds are in sync. It allows us to feel understood and to experience a sense of belonging. In a team environment, it is an expression of working cohesively in the pursuit of shared goals.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand another’s situation, feelings and motives. It is our capacity to recognise and appreciate the concerns other people have. Empathy is often colloquially described as ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’ or ‘seeing a situation through someone else’s eyes’. That is, to be able to see a situation as another would.

Developing the skills that convey empathy is important for nurse leaders. Very rarely do we work in an environment where we can do our job without the need to interact with others. Therefore, an empathetic leader prioritises the welfare of the people they lead. Developing your ability to convey empathy authentically is an essential leadership skill. Naturally, people respond positively when others show that they care about them and their concerns. This is the case in life, as it is in nursing. Nursing is, after all, a team sport!

The Skills of an Empathetic Leader Include:

Communication Skills

According to Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus Ph. D, Clark University, over 90% of our communication is non-verbal. An active and engaged listener is looking for the body language and subtext that accompanies all our verbal interactions. To build rapport and get closer to your desired outcomes you have to be an active listener. Remove distractions, provide plenty of eye contact, don’t interrupt and paraphrase what you have heard to ensure you have interpreted their meaning correctly.

Lending a Hand

To build rapport with your team and to have them support you in achieving your goals, you have to be prepared to help them. If you don’t come out of your office and away from the computer when they are struggling with the workload, you are sending a strong message that you are not part of the team. The notion that their struggle is not your struggle.

Building Strong Relationships

Show an interest in the lives of the people you wish to lead. It is easier to show empathy if you know about your people. Do you know a little about each staff member? For example, their partner’s name and what they do for a job, their children’s names if they have children, what their passion and hobbies are?

Outcomes of An Empathetic Leader

Having a shared mindset.

Seeing a situation through someone else’s eyes.

By incorporating these techniques into your leadership style, you and your team are likely to benefit from:

  • Greater awareness of the needs of your team members. This allows you to troubleshoot and manage problems before they eventuate.
  • Greater communication that promotes the sharing of useful feedback.
  • Awareness of problems that individuals may be facing, which enables you to provide guidance and support.
  • Rapport and trust within your team.

Finally, the law of reciprocity suggests that if you do me a favour, I am obliged to do the same for you. If you, as a nurse leader, show you care about the nurses and allied health professionals in your team, they are more likely to care about you and the goals that you share.
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  • Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence 1996, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 38 Soho Square, London WIV 5DF
  • John Neffinger & Matthew Kohut, Compelling People 2014, Hudson Street Press, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
  • Albert Mehra, Mehrabian’s Communication Research, www.businessballs.com.
  • Tanveer Naseer, Empathy in Leadership – 10 reasons why it matters, http://www.tanveernaseer.com/wh…ip/.



Portrait of Janette Cooper
Janette Cooper

Janette Cooper is a registered nurse, currently working as a gastroenterology procedure nurse at Noarlunga Hospital. She has a Bachelor of Nursing, a Graduate Certificate in Health Service Management from Flinders University, and a certificate in Gastroenterology Nursing from The Queensland University of Technology. In 2012 she began a life coaching course with The Coaching Institute in Melbourne. It has allowed her to combine her two passions of nursing and personal development. She divides her time between gastroenterology nursing and promoting personal development and leadership by means of frequently published articles through Ausmed, leadership presentations and workshops and coaching health professionals wanting to develop their leadership potential. See Educator Profile

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