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Effective leaders and empathetic relationships


In chapter six of a seven-part series on the characteristics of effective leadership, Hy-tec Northern Territory’s Ryan Low highlights the importance of empathy in management roles.

I have written a companion book to my first title The Emerging Leader, entitled Effective Leaders: Four attributes that underpin the core characteristics of effective leadership, which will be published next month. 

Apart from offering many additional stories from the seven core characteristics of effective leadership (see diagram on opposite page), it has interesting articles from local and international authors on:

  • RESPECT: (Diversity/Gender Equality and Inclusion & Culture).
  • COURAGE: (Personal & Public).
  • INTEGRITY: (Accountability & Transparency/Authenticity).
  • AGILITY: (Alignment & Agility – Leadership/Emotional/Management).

It has been an inspirational experience, during the past few months, to have received so many interesting stories, with several having been published in Quarry.

The Seven Core Characteristics of Effective Leadership are: 

  • Know yourself.
  • Emotional resilience.
  • Empathetic relationships.
  • Vision and values.
  • Effective communication.
  • Motivation and teamwork.
  • Trust in your leadership.

This month’s article from Ryan Low, is based on Empathetic Relationships, which I have “defined” as:

Empathetic leaders have the ability to recognise, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another person. They acknowledge the story without judgement.

Mike Cameron

Hy-Tec Industries’ NT area manager Ryan Low.


Developing and maintaining empathetic relationships was definitely NOT a focus for me when I started my career in management/leadership roles. 

At 22, I became the manager of a busy concrete plant with 15 employees and had little to no idea of what it took to be an effective leader. My team had an average age of about 55, so my first task (self-assigned) was to ensure that under no circumstances would I be viewed as a pushover or easy target due to my young age and inexperience. So, for the next few years I yelled, pointed fingers, and held people to impossible standards – all the while showing everybody involved exactly how young and inexperienced I actually was.

I cringe when I think back to these times but through my misguided attempts at earning respect I did manage to learn a lesson which I have kept front of mind for all my subsequent roles, ie: 

Management success is highly dependent on successful people management. 

Sounds like an obvious point, but it is often overlooked for other “priorities”. Developing and maintaining strong relationships with your co-workers and employees should always be a focus if you are striving to get the best out of a team.

I have worked for my current organisation for more than 10 years and in that time I have worked in four different states and territories, multiple divisions and in numerous operating environments. The one constant through it all has been the people. People who want to be heard, people who want to be respected and people who want to be empathised with.  

By attempting to give a strong focus to these areas I have managed to develop many long-lasting relationships which I believe have subsequently improved the overall performance of every team I’ve been involved with. But I haven’t always hit the mark. 

Out of the blue, around seven years ago, I received a resignation letter from a team member who I had a high degree of respect for and I really valued their contribution. Naturally, I sat down with the employee to try and gauge what the reasons were and if there was some way, I could salvage the situation. Turns out that the team member had been reporting on his daily pre-start about a faulty air valve on one of his dump truck’s tyres. I was aware of the issue  but a faulty tyre valve was the least of my concerns at the time and I hadn’t actioned it for repair.  

When they pointed this out as the reason for the resignation, to be honest I was astounded. However, they then went on to point out that they had been reporting the issue for more than four months and that due to my inaction on the matter, they had been starting each day pumping up said tyre and essentially feeling fed-up.

I tell this story because quite simply I wasn’t empathetic to the situation. It was a very minor concern for me but to the employee it was having a direct and daily impact that had pushed them to the point of resignation. 

Forming empathetic workplace relationships has, at times, been an almost taboo topic in the manager/employee space. The old motto of “leave your personal life at home” was frequently upheld as being a key component to a successful working career. Not only is this an outdated mindset, it is also unrealistic and an unhealthy expectation to place on someone with no long-term benefits to be gained.

The introduction of assistance programs for employees cannot be understated since it has not only opened previously shut doors for employees, it also encourages leaders to engage and to show genuine care and understanding towards those they lead.  

Let’s be clear, there is not an expectation that all leaders must now become full-time counsellors. In fact, too much empathy can come with its own downsides. But something as simple as the ability to recognise emotional change in an employee, and being able to guide them to the support programs in place, is a strong indicator that empathetic relationships have been formed.

To be empathetic is to be understanding, to be supportive, to be encouraging, and to always act with integrity. These attributes are of value in any workplace and are what I believe to be a core characteristic of any modern day, effective leader. The ability to build empathetic relationships is a requirement if you intend to coach your team to further development.   

By creating this environment and encouraging an empathetic culture, you will be supporting staff satisfaction which, in turn, will lead to greater staff productivity and staff retention.

I challenge you to consider the above traits, and empathetic relationships as a whole, the next time you look to apply an “arm’s length” approach to a challenging leadership situation. With confidence in your ability to apply them, you can build relationships based on trust and appreciation that will contribute to the overall success of your team. Without them, you risk a culture of apathy and disconnection.•

Ryan Low is the area manager of Hy-Tec Industries in the Northern Territory.

This article appears in the September issue of Quarry.

More reading

Chapter 1: Seven characteristics of effective leadership

Chapter 2: Know Yourself: James Rowe – Self-development and personal growth challenges

Chapter 3: Emotional Resilience: Riding bumps, dispelling doubts

Chapter 4: Chasing the bagel: Defining your vision and values

Chapter 5: Understanding and conveying the power of words

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