Empathy and Assertiveness Through the Leadership Lens

By Chris George, ACC | Executive Coach

Forbes says that “Emotional Intelligence is the single biggest predictor of performance in the workplace and the strongest driver of leadership and personal excellence”. So, what is Emotional Intelligence? When some people hear the term, they may think we are just talking about empathy. While empathy is an important aspect of Emotional Intelligence (EI), the full picture is much broader, encompassing several domains and many skills or competencies. Balancing these skills leads to heightened self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Empathy is one of these EI skills, which, when combined with assertiveness (another EI skill), results in highly effective leadership.

Empathy is about recognizing, understanding, and appreciating how others feel as well as being able to articulate your understanding of another’s perspective and behaving in a way that respects their feelings. Assertiveness is not to be confused with aggressiveness, which may imply a forceful or hostile behavior. Assertiveness involves communicating openly and directly in a socially acceptable, non-offensive, and non-destructive manner.

Empathy and assertiveness are tools that facilitate communication. Empathy suggests communication that conveys caring and compassion while assertiveness suggests clarity and directness. Despite what we might assume, they are not mutually exclusive. They can exist in harmony, and the key is balance. If communication is defined by high empathy and low assertiveness, we might lose business momentum or avoid necessary challenging conversations. Conversely, if we communicate with high assertiveness and low empathy, we might appear insensitive or miss opportunities to elicit helpful input from others. Either way, an imbalance of empathy and assertiveness can undermine trust, confidence, and effectiveness.

How can you balance empathy and assertiveness in your interactions at work? Achieving this balance is about mindset and behaviors. First, look inward to consider how you might be acting (or reacting) on automatic pilot. Then, make actionable choices to influence your desired outcome.

If you want to be more empathetic:

  • Implement an “open door” policy. Let your team members know they can come to you (and be there for them when they do). Encourage one-on-one interactions outside of formal reviews and project meetings.
  • Be curious. Pursue real conversations with team members. Ask what is working for them and what’s not. Listen with intention and be open to suggestions.
  • Emphasize the value of collaboration. Ask for multiple perspectives from your team members. Encourage open discussion and resist the urge to be dismissive.

If you want to be more assertive:

  • Consider what might be holding you back. Is there a fear of offending someone? If you have high empathy, you are already hard-wired to deliver your message so it will be received in the best manner possible. Embrace the mindset of being empathetically assertive.
  • Understand that being assertive is not about being difficult. Assertiveness allows for direct, but non-threatening exchanges and having the confidence to share beliefs and values. Imagine the potential positive outcomes of using your voice, then choose times to do it.
  • Notice your non-verbal communication. Are there situations where your body language could convey a more confident demeanor? Be aware of how you stand, walk, sit, use your hands, and even your facial expressions. Your non-verbal communication should support your message.

It is possible for a good leader to embody both assertiveness and empathy. Start with an Emotionally Intelligent mindset, then take conscious and deliberate action. The powerful combination of empathy and assertiveness will contribute to your success as a respected, trusted, competent, and effective leader.

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