Empathy builds trust - Stephen P Brown
Organizational Leadership

How Empathy Inspires Trust and Better Decision-making

Empathy is in danger of becoming the latest buzzword in business. Every few years there’s something “new” and trendy to educate on. Genuine empathy is a powerful relationship characteristic that is hard to fake and difficult to maintain.

According to our friends over at Webster’s, the USA’s primary dictionary, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”1

Just to be clear: sympathy is acknowledging the feeling someone is having, whereas empathy is experiencing a similar feeling as someone else.

Leadership isn’t Management

So how does empathy help leaders?

First, a bug-bear that you’ll no doubt hear me talk about a lot:

Managers manage things, and leaders lead people.

Way – I mean WAY – too many managers think they are leaders. Corporations spend millions training leaders, but in my experience, miss the mark by about 98%.

Project Management is about managing a project – what needs to get done, by whom, when, and for how much. Leadership is about setting vision and strategy and direction.

Managers have something to accomplish.

Leaders make the decisions as to where their people are going. Or how they’re going to get wherever they are going. Most of the time, leaders don’t know where everyone will end up, but if they’re good leaders (sometimes in the middle, sometimes in the front, sometimes in the back), they will listen to the folks they are leading and make a decision based on their feedback.

When I was learning to be a conductor in my late teens, one of my teachers boldly yelled at me in a rehearsal “LET THEM PLAY!” Turns out I was trying to direct my musicians too much – leaning in, dictating every move and note and dynamic. I was not letting the experts do their thing.

Over the years I learned to do just that – let the experts play while I help them find the emotional journey through music we’re taking ourselves and our audience on: a little louder here, a little slower there. A big boom at least once a concert, and at least one tear-jerking moment, too.

Managers like to be in front and have everyone follow them.

Leaders like to put the experts in front and rely on their expertise to add to the bigger picture.

Making decisions with empathy

So if leaders lead, they are the people who make decisions that affect everyone else.

Have you noticed how easy it is to make a decision?


That’s why most people avoid making decisions.

And why bad managers believe they are the best at decision-making.

They dictate “Do this!” or “I want this done this way.”

Good leaders like Elon Musk are the exact opposite:

They empathize with the folks around them – above, alongside and below. They empower their people, and are patient and understanding when challenges arise, mistakes happen, and things go wrong. They listen, they nod, they smile, they keep listening, keep asking questions, and when it’s time to make a decision, guess what…

Empathy builds trust - Stephen P Brown

Just about everyone already knows what that decision is going to be!

We’re just waiting for our leader to declare it.

It’s that listening, nodding and questioning that suggests a leader makes decisions with empathy. Experience is often considered mandatory in leadership, but that’s a faulty and lazy expectation. Leaders do need to empathize, and that means that they not just acknowledge how their experts feel and what they’re going through (sympathy), but that they do their best to understand what that feeling is, and what it must be like to experience life in and out of work with this issue hanging over their heads.

That’s empathetic decision-making.

Building trust through genuine empathy

And the more a leader genuinely tries to understand their experts’ feelings and situations, the more trust they build with them. There is no faking that, either – it’s either real trust, or there’s no trust.

Trust often results in experts not questioning the decisions their leaders make, but trust is not an end unto itself.

Mary Dillon built trust with her teams at Ulta Beauty by focusing on customer retention and employee satisfaction. When you think about it, you really can’t have the first without the second, and that requires outward demonstrations of empathy.

Managers rarely inspire trust in their teams, because by their very nature they are not empathetic. Managers have tasks to get done or goals to accomplish, so they tell you what they are (or let you think you have some input by encouraging you to set sub-goals), and how to get things done, and are not interested in delays, reasons, logic, challenges, or feelings.

Many managers incorporate those elements into their daily language, but it’s fake empathy that is as transparent as someone peddling a piece of glass as a diamond.

And fake empathy does the opposite of building trust.

“[Trust] is a many splendored thing.
[Trust] lifts us up where we belong.
All you need is [Trust]!”
said Ewan MacGregor’s character in the movie Moulin Rouge.

The most effective way I’ve learned to build trust is to be genuinely caring about people.

In other words, empathetic.

Do you have a story about an empathetic leader in your life? I’d love to hear it. Share it with me here.

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy, Accessed 01/10/2024 ↩︎