By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

We’re all familiar with a host of theories about what drives better performance among individuals and in organizations.

  • On a galley slave ship the drivers were big brutes with whips.
  • In wars you had the threats of a firing squad.
  • My parents tried to motivate me by taking away weekend driving privileges.

Employers employ a variety of carrots and sticks: promotions, pay raises, bonuses, pay cuts, layoffs – even outright firings.

Now comes research that indicates the secret sauce of better performance is empathy.


Marcel Schwantes, principal and founder of Leadership From the Core, concedes that could be a hard sell for some leaders, but he advises:  “If you're skeptical that this is touchy-feely campfire nonsense with no business value in a transactional world, consider the research.”

The research he’s referring to was conducted by global training giant Development Dimensions International (DDI), where folks have studied leadership for 46 years. Their research pointing to what Schwantes calls the “superpower” of empathy involved an assessment of over 15,000 leaders in more than 300 organizations across 20 industries in 18 countries.

The findings, published in their High Resolution Leadership report, said that skills such as "encouraging involvement of others" and "recognizing accomplishments" are important. But empathy rose to the top as the most critical driver of overall performance.

Not a feeling

It’s important to note that when the research talks about empathy it is not pointing to some vague feeling a leader might have toward a follower. Instead, the study points to specific behaviors – active listening and responding with empathy.

“It's about helping others feel heard and understood,” says Ray Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It.

Rare ... and getting rarer

The bad news is that empathy is a rare skill among leaders – and it seems to be getting rarer.

Only 40 percent of leaders in the study were proficient or strong on empathy behaviors. And a study of college students showed a serious decline in empathic skills over an eight-year period.

Heart issue: Can’t fake it

One of the challenges – although it may be a genuine grace in God’s domain – is that it’s virtually impossible to fake empathy for very long. As the study indicated, “people see right through you if your empathy is not expressed in a sincere and authentic way.”

So that brings us to matters of the heart. Effective leadership begins on the inside. And effective leaders have a servant’s heart. When you really care about people, it can take a toll. But the rewards outweigh the costs – eventually if not immediately.

Jesus told us that we should love our neighbors as ourselves (Mat. 22:39; Mk 12:31; Lk 10:27). Modern research affirms the practical value of living that way – for ourselves and for others.