Anne Welsh: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Better relationships with employees. This is perhaps the most obvious benefit. An empathic approach builds trust, rapport and employee engagement. For example, I have a client who runs a lab and had an employee in a difficult personal situation. When she was able to express empathy to that employee, they were able to have an honest and open conversation. They were able to problem solve in a caring and compassionate way, which enabled the employee to stay in her position and navigate the situation. Upon returning, the client was highly engaged and loyal due to the empathic leadership she had experienced.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Anne Welsh.

Dr. Anne Welsh is a distinguished psychologist, executive coach, and consultant with a deep passion for empowering women in their leadership journeys. With a diverse career background that includes a career at Harvard, private practice, and corporate consulting, Dr. Welsh brings a unique blend of academic knowledge and real-life experiences to her work. She is dedicated to helping women navigate the complexities of career aspirations, personal fulfillment, and mental well-being. Dr. Welsh’s expertise lies in supporting women in traditionally male-dominated fields, as well as working parents across various sectors. Her coaching philosophy emphasizes the development of leadership skills, emotional intelligence, and a harmonious integration of work and personal life. Dr. Welsh’s mission is to help individuals create fulfilling and impactful career paths that align with their values and life goals.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

My career has taken some twists and turns over time, but one common thread has been an interest in thinking analytically and in understanding people. I loved logic puzzles as a kid, and enjoyed figuring out how things work. I put that to use in studying science, in my research as a psychologist, and in my consulting work. However, I have also always loved making connections with others- especially in authentic and honest ways, which is a huge part of my work as a practicing psychologist and executive coach. My career now enables me to blend these dual elements in a way that helps others and feels fulfilling.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I honestly find most days in my career interesting and I don’t know if one day really stands out. However, recently I have been really loving working in the interplay space. In the interplay between my one-on-one client work and group work, or between my consulting work and the one-on-one work. So often we approach things as if they are in a single silo, yet it is the interconnectedness that is vital to understanding problems and coming up with solutions. For example, when I was only working as a psychologist, I had so many people coming in with challenges that they were facing at work- challenges that were part of systemic issues. While I could help them in their own responses and coping styles, I had no access to the system. Now my work allows me to access and improve multiple levels.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think this interplay is also what makes me stand out. I offer multifaceted support and can do multiple things, in a way that serves leaders, employees and companies. For example, one client reached out for support in her own working mother journey. We worked on that transition for her through coaching. However, she valued the work so much that she also brought me on to do workshops and parental leave coaching within her organization to support all of the working parents there. My significant training in multiple modalities helps serve my clients better.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Empathy. I don’t think one can be successful in interpersonal careers like mine without a deep understanding and ability to see others. Being able to witness and sit in difficult feelings with others allows them to feel seen and heard- which leads to all sorts of benefits as we will get into in this article!

Authenticity. I have never been good at “faking it,” perhaps to my detriment as a teenager and fitting in with the cool kids! I am myself. I believe this authenticity goes hand in hand with empathy. The ability to understand and see myself, to accept myself and be vulnerable with others allows for genuine connection.

Persistence. Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart! I did not foresee this career journey for myself and I believe that one reason that I have been successful is that I haven’t given up despite numerous hurdles and moments of self doubt.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

In some ways, as a working parent, I am making hard choices every single day. To show up at my kids’ things vs. showing up for my clients, vs. pursuing my intellectual fulfillment, vs. investing in myself. It’s an ongoing process- one that is never complete. I think that is simply a part of leadership. No choice is an easy one, and we are all doing the best with the information we have available at the time.

Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

Let’s start by recognizing that there are two different types of empathy, both of which can be important in leadership. Emotional empathy is feeling what another is feeling, and cognitive empathy is understanding why another person is feeling any given way. In a leadership context, this looks like both feeling with your employees, but also understanding why. Emotional empathy allows for the connection, while cognitive empathy allows for the perspective to possibly problem-solve or support. Having these abilities, to be aware of and understand others, allows for increased trust, improved communication, and a sense of value and connection for team members.

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

I was working with a leader who’s c-suite equivalent was retiring. She was asked to step up without much warning. She was feeling unsure of herself and her skills. However, she actually used empathy to guide her in the process. As there had been recent layoffs, morale was already struggling and people were anxious. She was able to connect with the anxiety of her team members, understand it, and actually use that to give her strength for a position she was feeling anxious about herself. She recognized that she needed to be a guide for them, and help them manage their anxiety, in order for the organization as a whole to perform. Her empathy allowed her to connect with her team, and channel her own anxiety into a drive to help them.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

Part of striking that balance is understanding that there is a difference between empathy and people pleasing, and that we sometimes have to make those unpopular decisions for the health of an organization. Parents understand this in a deep way. For example, I put limits on my kids screen time use. They are not fans of my policy. I understand why they feel that way, and I can feel with them the disappointment of wrapping up an enjoyable activity. I can also tolerate that disappointment when I set the limit. In a more corporate example, I was working with a CEO who was looking to expand her organization. She had an employee who was underperforming. This employee was starting to cause some toxic habits in the workplace and the CEO was having to pick up all of the slack. The client knew and understood the employees desire to move up into leadership and to increase her salary. However, she was unable to follow through with her tasks at this level (let alone a promotion). Once she saw the impact this employee was starting to have on others in the organization, she was able to see where she could feel and tolerate the employee’s disappointment, but also set a boundary that helped improve the organization.

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

Sympathy involves understanding someone’s emotions from our perspective and empathy involves feeling their emotions from their perspective. Sympathy means we might be able to pass judgment. For example “ I get that my employee is stressed. She shouldn’t be.” Empathy is without judgment because you understand feelings from another’s perspective. While sympathy can be helpful, it is not as relational. Empathy allows for more connection. Another way to put it is that sympathy is more passive, while empathy is more engaged. Why does this matter? There is room for both, but in the end, empathy allows for your employees to feel seen and heard- which fosters a better relationship. However, empathy does require emotional intelligence to hold boundaries and have challenging conversations.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

I often suggest people start by working on self-awareness and labeling and understanding their own emotions. Developing that level of emotional intelligence is vital to understanding the emotional lives of others. I also suggest working on really active listening. So many of us wait for our turn to talk, rather than really listening to what the other person is saying. In school, my kids learn about “whole body listening” and think about how every part of their body might be engaged in the listening process. Adults can do the same! I also always advocate working with a coach, as getting feedback can be a really important tool to develop these skills.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

Empathy is actually key here- when we can understand and feel the emotions of others, we can embrace our differences and the way in which an organization or work culture might need to shift to accommodate diverse backgrounds, ways of thinking, or needs. It allows for open, honest, connected conversations, in which all parties can feel safe. This psychological safety is a pillar of a strong, diverse culture.

What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?

I think, once again, empathy can be at the heart of these plans. Succession planning impacts every single person at an organization. Understanding that impact for each person- and how they feel about it- will allow for that holistic approach. For example, in choosing to step away, a client of mine was able to address concerns and planning for her immediate team, but also all of their direct reports. This ability helps everyone feel safe and seen during a transition.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

1 . Better relationships with employees. This is perhaps the most obvious benefit. An empathic approach builds trust, rapport and employee engagement. For example, I have a client who runs a lab and had an employee in a difficult personal situation. When she was able to express empathy to that employee, they were able to have an honest and open conversation. They were able to problem solve in a caring and compassionate way, which enabled the employee to stay in her position and navigate the situation. Upon returning, the client was highly engaged and loyal due to the empathic leadership she had experienced.

2 . Better able to manage conflict. When conflict at work inevitably arises, empathy will always help. When you look at what derails couples in fights, it is often behaviors that display the opposite of empathy- behaviors such as “stonewalling” or bringing up all of a partner’s past wrongdoings are toxic to a relationship. This is also true at work. However, being empathic in a conflict- understanding how another is feeling without judgment- allows it to become “us against the problem” rather than one person against the other.

3 . More influence. As a leader, influence is clearly important and empathy increases that. When we can look at a situation from another’s perspective and even join them in that feeling, we are better able to communicate our needs and priorities. For example, when a client is navigating change management on some level, empathy is a first step. This allows the leader to communicate the change in a way that directly addresses all levels of employees, so that they are more likely to get on board with, and support, the change.

4 . Improved emotional intelligence. All leaders benefit from developing emotional intelligence skills- the data is remarkably clear on that. While I mentioned that developing emotional intelligence can be helpful in improving empathy skills, it also acts in the reverse. For example, I have a client who was empathic in her role. However, she was not as self-aware of her own emotions or the impact of that empathy on herself. Through coaching, she was able to hone her empathy skills to turn inward. She used her empathy to develop more self-awareness and insight. This facilitated better boundaries, better self care, and a richer internal life.

5. Aligned and intentional leadership. So often we operate on autopilot- making decisions based on reactive, quick thinking. Empathy actually forces us to slow down. To feel our own feelings and those of others. Slowing down can help us make more intentional and aligned choices. It gives us time to reflect, to pause, and to move through decisions in a way that fits.This is often at the heart of my work with clients in leaders- and improves both their leadership and their lives overall.

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

The biggest risk is empathy without boundaries. If we are highly empathic, without a strong sense of self, we can get lost in the feelings of others- especially in places of high emotional empathy. For these clients, the work is around establishing stronger internal and external boundaries, so that they do not lose touch with others OR with themselves.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

So many things are concerned these days, but my main goal is getting women into leadership roles, getting them to recognize the value they bring, getting them listened to and heard, and supporting them in their life journeys.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I don’t know about a movement, but I think increasing empathy in the world would solve a LOT of problems- and that starts with understanding and feeling our OWN feelings. So many people are afraid of feeling- they hold back, they fear they will lose themselves, or that if they truly connect with something hard, they will never stop feeling bad. Yet feelings come and go like waves- and riding them is actually the key to letting them dissipate. The more we give ourselves permission to have feelings, the more we will be able to connect with and tolerate feelings in others, and the better work, and the world as a whole, will be.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Instagram: @dr.anne.welsh

Free masterclass on perfectionism and burnout here:

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.