How empathy can improve the impact of feedback

When I mediate teams in conflict, or help a manager improve their team’s performance, one of the things I most often find is that there is a lack of empathy between people.

This inability or unpreparedness to step into the other person’s shoes means that what should be a straightforward discussion ends up getting way out of control. The end result? Organisations spending money on specialists like me and my colleagues to come in and help turn things around.

But it needn’t be that way.

At a time when budgets are becoming even tighter, helping managers improve how they handle different situations could make a big difference. Not just to performance but also to the level of employee commitment and engagement.

One of the most important activities of managers and leaders is giving feedback to their staff. Get this right and employee motivation, morale and performance can go from strength to strength. Get this wrong and you’ll have unhappy staff who are unlikely to improve performance and who may well be looking for a role elsewhere.

Helpful research, published in the December 2017 edition of the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, explores the impact of how leaders give negative feedback.

The research

The American research team explored the extent to which a leader displaying empathic concern would impact the recipient’s response to that feedback, along with the subsequent promotability of that leader. The researchers suggest that,

“Leader empathic concern helps employees cope with performance feedback and therefore, impacts their emotional reactions to the event.”

The research was split into two separate but complementary studies.

Study one


177 people participated in this study. Participants were recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk), an online marketplace for work.

A video based scenario was used, showing a leader providing negative feedback. Part one of the video, which all participants watched, showed a leader giving them negative feedback.

For part two of the video, participants were split into two groups (with one operating as the control group). Those in the experiment group watched the final bit of negative feedback with the displaying empathic concern. The control group watched the final bit of negative feedback without the leader displaying empathic concern.

Study two


360-degree feedback was gathered on 306 leaders, from Canada, on a leadership development programme.

The researchers were interested in how variable leaders were in how they were seen to give negative feedback. They were also interested in how promotable leaders were, in relation to their use of empathic concern when giving negative feedback.

Key concepts used

Affective events theory (AET): The physical and emotional reactions a person has in response to work events influences their attitudes and behaviour. For more on this, see the 1996 work of Howard Weiss and Russell Cropanzano.

Empathic concern: A focus on the other person with genuine care and concern for their welfare, underpinned by kindness and interpersonal warmth.  See C.Daniel Batson’s 2011 book, Altruism in Humans, for more on this.

Four dimensions of empathy: Mark Davis (1983) identified four different aspects of empathy. These are (i) empathic concern (ii) personal distress (iii) fantasy and (iv) perspective taking.

Model of leader emotion management behaviour: The specific behaviours that a leader uses to prevent negative emotions in others (e.g. tactful messaging) which are different from those used to elicit positive emotions (e.g. providing support). See the study by Kaplan et al (2014) for more on this.

Reappraisal: A relatively stable tendency for people to reframe how they think about a potentially emotion-inducing situation in order to manage any emotional impact. See Richard Lazarus’ and Elizabeth Alfert’s 1964 work on this.

The findings

Study one findings

  1. People who received negative feedback from a leader displaying empathic concern reacted more positively than those receiving negative feedback without. However, the decrease in negative reactions was not that different between the two groups.
  2. Reappraisal had little impact on how positively or negative a person responded to the feedback received. Nor did it have an impact on how a person would rate the leader’s effectiveness at giving feedback.
  3. Those who responded positively to the feedback saw the leader as being more effective at giving feedback than those who responded negatively. The leader’s display of empathic concern had more of an effect on the ratings of those who reacted positively.

Study two findings

  1. The quality of negative feedback given to a person has a strong link to how promotable that leader is seen as being. This is made even stronger when empathic concern is shown to be high.

“The fact that empathic concern increases positive affect suggests that it is particularly important for determining what an employee decides to do with the feedback that he or she receives”

Implications and suggestions

Leaders and their relationship with their staff has a big impact on performance. The ability to give negative feedback well can make a difference. When empathy is added in to the mix, it seems this can make a significant difference in how that employee then goes on to use that feedback.

Recruiting into leadership roles: For HR teams, this is an opportunity to think about the approaches you use when recruiting people into leadership roles. If the ability to give negative feedback well is a key factor in employee performance, commitment and turnover then it must make sense to hire people who can do this in an empathic way. Role play simulations can be a good way to surface this during recruitment.

Talent management: All too often, I come across people who’ve ended up in leadership positions because of their technical expertise and not their managerial or leadership qualities. This is where learning and development teams can help. By clarifying the skills and qualities needed to be a successful leader, this can help those recruiting into leadership roles select the best people who exhibit those qualities.

Leadership development: Empathy is a key component of emotional intelligence (EQ) and a good leadership development programme will have EQ at its heart. A really effective way for leaders to develop and strengthen their EQ is through 360-degree feedback. One organisation I worked with ended up using ‘graduates’ of their leadership programme to run 360-degree feedback meetings with subsequent cohorts. This is a great way to hone feedback skills. More importantly, it enables the leader to empathise as they have sat where the feedback recipient has sat and therefore, know how vulnerable 360 can make a person feel.

Feedback culture: In the work I do with organisations, one of the key things I emphasise is that it is as important for staff to know how to receive feedback as it is for leaders to be able to give it well. Workshops on giving and receiving feedback can assist in creating the right kind of mindset. Role modelling by leaders can also help in creating a feedback culture. For example, a leader asking employees for feedback at the beginning of 121 discussions along the lines of “How have I helped you this month? How have I hindered you this month? What can I do more of or better to help you?” Key is for the leader to react in a constructive way to the feedback.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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