Great Leaders are Sensitive

Great Leaders are Sensitive

We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening of this very special kind is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.

Carl Rogers

Although one role of a leader is to oversee projects, being sensitive to the emotional needs of your followers is key to maximizing your leadership effectiveness. Despite what some may think, being sensitive does not mean being a doormat. Rather, it means being understanding and warm while remaining firm about your expectations. When you lead with compassion, you foster trust with your followers and allow them to take responsibility for their actions and projects. Given the high cost of turnover, sensitive leaders also benefit the company’s bottom line by keeping top talent at the organization.

Individuals who are sensitive have compassion toward others. As a component of emotional intelligence, sensitivity involves showing a supportive, considerate, and caring attitude toward the needs, concerns, moods, agendas, interests, and aspirations of others. Leaders who are sensitive make an effort to understand the experiences, perspectives, and emotional needs of their employees.

In assessing your ability to be sensitive to others, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I try to see events from the perspectives of my employees?
  • How can I promote an environment that views mistakes as learning opportunities?
  • Am I taking the time to recognize and appreciate the achievements of my followers?
  • Do I demonstrate genuine interest in the lives of my employees?
  • Am I engaging in active listening when communicating with my employees?
  • Have I been interacting with my employees in ways that are honest and constructive?

Improve Your Sensitivity

Put yourself in other people’s shoes: Empathy involves imaging yourself in another person’s situation, understanding their emotions and point of view. In addition to what people say, pay attention to other people’s facial expressions, gestures, and body language. These nonverbal cues can provide valuable information on what others are thinking and feeling, and can help you see things through the eyes of your employees. Sensitive leaders use these insights to adjust their behavior to the emotions, needs, and preferences of their followers1.

Remember that your followers are only human: Nobody is perfect—even the best employees make mistakes and have bad days. Build a climate of trust by acknowledging your own oversights and treating mistakes as learning opportunities. When your followers trust you, they are more likely to acknowledge errors, rather than cover up their mistakes. Setting a compassionate tone involves being forgiving of mistakes, while still holding your followers accountable for their actions.

Be generous with your praise. It is easy to focus on giving feedback that highlights areas of improvement. However, people also like having their work appreciated and their achievements recognized. When giving praise, be sincere and specific—otherwise it may come across as empty flattery. For example, even a simple “thank you” or handwritten note can express gratitude. Research shows that employees value personalized recognition2. Additionally, when employees look up to their leaders, they feel stronger loyalty to the organization and are more likely to go the extra mile at work.3

Start Doing These 3 Things Now to Be More Sensitive

The following steps can help you become better at interpersonal sensitivity:

  1. Build rapport with your followers. As a leader, your team is your best resource. Being sensitive involves caring about your employees outside of work and getting to know them as people. Ask your direct reports about their day, and remember what they share with you. Showing genuine interest in the lives and well-being of your followers also helps builds trust. In turn, this means they will come to you for support more often, such as to bring issues to your attention, or highlight obstacles interfering with their work. In a supportive work environment, employees are more engaged and are, as a result, less likely to leave the organization. This, therefore, reduces turnover4.
  2. Practice active listening: A key part of sensitivity is the ability to effectively listen. Active listening involves paying attention to what other people tell you with the intention of understanding them, helping them, or learning something new5. In other words, people want to know that they have been heard and respected. Reflective listening is also a key part of other leadership skills, including communication and conflict management. Consequently, leaders who listen have more satisfied employees6 and more positive leader-follower relationships7.
  3. Deliver difficult messages with a gentle touch: In interacting with others, remember that the delivery is just as important as the message. This is true whether in the context of giving feedback, managing conflict, or dealing with a sensitive issue. Be mindful of how others may interpret your words, tone of voice and body language. When thinking of how to best convey your message, imagine how you would feel if on the receiving end, especially if it is bad news. Likewise, in difficult situations, when your emotions are becoming difficult to control, take a break. This will give yourself time to regain your composure and calm down, so you can continue to show a sensitive face to your employees.


WATCH: Understanding Empathy
READ: Assessment: Are You a Compassionate Leader?
DEVELOP: Develop your sensitivity by taking advantage of SIGMA’s coaching services.

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sensitive leaders

1 Schmid Mast, M., & Hall, J. A. (2018). The impact of interpersonal accuracy on behavioral outcomes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27, 309-314. doi:10.1177/0963721418758437

2 Luthans, K. (2000). Recognition: A powerful, but often overlooked, leadership tool to improve employee performance. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 7, 31-39. doi:10.1177/107179190000700104

3 Vianello, M., Galliani, E. M., & Haidt, J. (2010). Elevation at work: The effects of leaders’ moral excellence. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 390-411. doi:10.1080/17439760.2010.516764

4 Kundu, S. C., & Lata, K. (2017). Effects of supportive work environment on employee retention: Mediating role of organizational engagement. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 25, 703-722. doi:10.1108/IJOA-12-2016-1100

5 McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (2009). Messages: The communication skills book. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications

6 Schmid Mast, M., Jonas, K., Cronauer, C. K., & Darioly, A. (2012). On the importance of the superior’s interpersonal sensitivity for good leadership. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42, 1043-1068. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00852.x

7 Lloyd, K. J., Boer, D., & Voelpel, S. C. (2017). From listening to leading: Toward an understanding of supervisor listening within the framework of leader-member exchange theory. International Journal of Business Communication, 54, 431-451. doi:10.1177/2329488415572778

About the Author

Sharon Van Duynhoven

Office Manager

Sharon brings our tests and assessments from the development stage to marketable product. She ensures quality control at every step of a project, edits technical documents and manuals, and artistically enhances reports and resources. She also manages contracts with clients across the globe and answers technical questions.