What is empathy?

Empathy can be difficult to define exactly but we usually know when it’s missing! Our favourite simple definition (thanks to Oxford Languages) is ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. The key word is ‘share’, meaning that we aren’t just acknowledging someone’s feelings but we’re able to experience the impact from their point of view.


Why the gap?

According to Effectiviology, an empathy gap is based on ‘a cognitive bias that causes people to struggle to understand mental states that are different from their present state’. It’s based on the feeling of one person being in a ‘subordinate’ position and it can be two-fold in the context of Service Leadership. The first is the gap between a service provider and a customer, reinforced by Customer Experience Magazine in August 2023 who reported that 68% of customers expect empathy, but only 37% truly feel it from brands.

Secondly there is the gap between a leader and the people in their team. In this edition we’re focusing on this leader-employee empathy gap, where the gap often exists because the leader doesn’t understand what the reality of service delivery feels like for a front-line employee, since they are so removed from being in that position.


How can you close the gap?

1. Role modelling

Walk the walk and do what you say! Leadership is a great opportunity to role model the approach you want people to adopt in their roles. For example, if a leader wants their team to give warm and friendly greetings to customers, then leaders should do the same with their people when they see them!

2. Culture of feedback

Embrace raw feedback from everywhere - customers and employees alike. If you want your teams to encourage feedback from customers, you should also want them to feed back to you as a leader. Create a safe environment to encourage negative feedback as a chance to improve, rather than employees wanting to protect leaders from bad news. Ask your people open and non-leading questions to really get behind the headlines. Empathic listening is just as critical, with the sole intent to understand things rather than just hear answers.

3. Awareness

The gap is greater than you think. As a leader, it can be hard to understand, since your focus may be elsewhere and you're not close to the real daily experience of your teams delivering service. But for employees, the gap is obvious, especially when they are feeling vulnerable or ‘hyper-vigilant’ and alert to anything their boss says or does, however small.

Find ways to get into the reality - go into the workplace and experience the front line for yourself (kind of like that TV show Undercover Boss but without the secrecy!).

Many studies have shown that leaders generally have a higher degree of optimism than the average. This means they can often dismiss negative feedback, which can make the gap bigger. However, creativity and new thinking usually comes from ‘destruction’ of old habits and leaders should see problems as real opportunities to improve things for their people and customers.

Richard Harvey, our Emotional Intelligence specialist sums things up: ‘As a leader, you don’t need to have all the answers and you don’t need to be the knowledge expert. You simply need to have the humility and awareness to shape decisions based on true understanding and empathy with the thoughts and feelings of your people’.


Richard Harvey, Emotional Intelligence Sepcialist


Making sure YOU adopt an empathic leadership style is one of the key ways you can ensure your people deliver consistent and high performing customer service.

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