Managers´ Display of Empathy as a Stimulant for Employee Motivation

10. 2. 2019

Recent breakthroughs in technology and the spread of globalization have exposed businesses to stiffer competitive environment where organizations have to continually strive to survive. Globalization has also brought about increase in multinational organizations where people from different countries and cultural values are employed to work as a team to achieve common organizational goals. The advantages resulting from people from diverse background working as a team are enormous. However, to benefit from these advantages, management must first overcome the challenges associated with motivating a workforce of a diverse nature. Employee motivation challenges are a common hurdle for managers and supervisors, irrespective of size, location, and type of their organizations. Glass (2007) opines that these challenges are more daunting in organizations where the workforce exhibits variations in perspectives and goals due to cultural or generational differences. These differences need to be adequately addressed if managers are to motivate employees for improved organizational performance in a competitive business environment (Njoroge & Yazdanifard, 2014).


Researcher and practitioners believe there is no generally exact formula for motivating employees since every organization is a unique workplace. The ability of a manager to motivate his subordinates also does not depend solely on professional knowledge but equally on the emotional behavior (attitude) of the manager and subordinates. Numerous studies have, thus, recommended various concepts, theories, and models on employee motivation; including skills that managers can adopt to keep employees highly motivated. One of these skills is empathy. The idea of empathy in leadership has been appreciably researched and often recommended due to its perceived positive impact on employee motivation. Empathy is a powerful skill a manager needs to motivate and drive subordinates to work harmoniously and productively in a diverse workplace.

Though motivation is a mechanism that is deployed to get employees to work efficiently and deliver quality results, empathy is, nonetheless, an essential skill managers require for effective leadership in their respective organizations.

This study discusses how managers' empathy skills stimulate employee motivation in a diverse workplace. The study begins with a review of some common mechanisms of motivation. The nature and features of leadership/managerial empathy are next described, followed by a discussion of the implication of empathy as a driver of employee motivation.

Diverse Workplace

Diversity in the workplace is often considered a challenging situation to manage. However, organizations that embrace diversity breed success and are usually competitive in today’s dynamic business environment (Jain and Verma, 1996). Workforce diversity can be described as a situation where employees from various socio-cultural backgrounds such as race, gender, physical ability, color, age, and ethnicity co-exist within the same company.

Robbins and Judge (2011) differentiate between surface-level and deep-level diversity by affirming that surface-level diversity includes those characteristics that are easier to notice, such as ethnic group, gender, age, race, disability, and age; typical for those characteristics is that they can evoke a certain standard image in people, albeit they do not in themselves necessarily reflect how people think and feel. Deep-level diversity entails differences in attitudes, personality, and values (Robbins and Judge, 2011). Many companies now engage workers from across the world due to globalization and less restriction on the movement of labor. The importance of a diversified workforce, therefore, cannot be overemphasized in view of the sweeping changes across the world. The big question is how to keep employees motivated in a diverse workplace. The answer to this question is just as diverse as the concept itself. Rathman (2011) asserts that most challenges in a diverse workplace can be linked with differences in employees’ culture, ethnicity, gender, beliefs, and values. Challenges of communication and cooperation among employees complement the daily issues in a culturally diverse workplace (Glass, 2007).

As earlier highlighted in this paper, employee motivation in a diverse workplace remains one of the biggest challenges for managers. To effectively manage a multi-national (or multi-cultural) workforce, it is necessary for managers to take into account the various beliefs, values and attitudes of employees which may influence performance drive in the workplace. Understanding what makes a diverse workforce tick is critical to optimizing an organization’s performance. However, contrary to the early belief that huge differences exist among diverse employees as regards what motivates them, recent literature shows that employees in the workplace have many similarities. Wong, Gardiner, Lang, & Coulon (2008) assert that recent research convincingly show all categories of employees are motivated by equally similar things like empathy, even in a diverse workplace.


Profitability and competitive advantage are some of the common objectives of businesses. Sustainable achievement of these major objectives requires motivated and inspired workforce. Origo and Pagani (2008) elaborate that a more motivated workforce is highly productive, generates profit, and exerts more positive effect on an organization. Clark, Geogellis, and Sanfe (1998) asset that employee turnover is a function of how motivated employees are in their work.

The definition of “motivation” is broad, and there are many ways to define the term, depending on different ideas and perspectives. Barnhart and Barnhart (1981) defines motivation as the act or process of furnishing with an incentive or inducement to action. Motivation is the act or a process that gives a person the reason to do something in a particular way or an explanation for the repeated behaviors, needs, and desires (Ellliot 2001). Moran (2013) explains that a motivated employee shows enthusiasm and eagerness towards the work and a strong determination to complete the tasks.

Jones and George (2008) identify the three major components of motivation as direction, intensity, and persistence. Conscious or unconscious goal that compels the performance and achievement of an act is regarded as direction. Intensity, on the other hand, is the effort used by the individual in the process of achieving the goal while persistence refers to the ability to retain motivation throughout the period of performance, even if there are obstacles to performance. Ryan and Deci (2000) also classify motivation into two types, namely intrinsic (internal) motivation and extrinsic (external) motivation. Intrinsic motivation derives from the self-desire to pursue new things or challenge oneself to gain knowledge or explore self-value and capabilities. According to Wigfield (1997), internally motivated people do their work with passion and willingness, strive for the best result and self-reward, and persistently improve their skills and abilities. Extrinsically motivated people perform activities to achieve desired outcomes. It arises majorly from external factors and sometimes from internal factors. Competitions, appraisals, external rewards, or punishment are some of the factors that can be linked to extrinsic motivation.

Employee motivation is an advanced subject on which considerable studies providing numerous tools and theories on motivation have been conducted, Some major researchers of motivation who are still relevant today include Maslow, Hertzberg, McClelland, Vroom, Alderfer, and Locke, to mention a few. These numerous authorities provide mechanisms that can be adopted by organizations to keep their workforce motivated. There are many approaches to motivate employees in today’s workplaces, and managers have been using them to improve employee motivation. However, due to the different needs and values of employees, successful implementation of these strategies and theories has been difficult for managers, especially in diverse workplaces. Njoroge and Yazdanifard (2014) assert that early studies reveal that monetary benefit was a considerable motivational technique. Money obviously accounts for the huge difference between employees working in inhumane conditions in the early industrial revolution and the ones working in slave conditions in the countryside. Njoroge and Yazdanifard (2014) cited Fredrick Taylor as attributing money to have a foremost effect in keeping and motivating industrial workers towards higher performance and exceptional productivity.

Recent literature has shown that employees are not motivated by money alone. Employees are sometimes motivated by emotional connection (Njoroge and Yazdanifard, 2014). Theorists of emotional connection show there is a relationship between emotion and motivation. The theory of emotional connection explains that people are naturally motivated to perform activities they hope would lead to happiness, satisfaction or other positive emotion. Goleman (2017) explains that employee motivation can be increased if managers develop emotional connection with their subordinates while also supporting the subordinates with what drives them to achieve personal and organizational goals. Goleman’s position, thus, buttresses the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach, such as monetary reward, is not expedient when managing employees of diverse backgrounds.

Managers’ Empathy

Business managers have devised various tools that can be used to motivate a diverse workforce. Prominent among these tools is empathy. Stotland, Matthew, Sherman, Hansson, and Richardson (1978) affirm that discussions of empathy date back in history to the emergence of philosophical thought; the origin of the word was, however, coined over a century ago by Titchener when he used the German word “Einfuhlung” to describe the emotional appreciation of another’s feelings (Wispe, 1986; Ioannidou and Konstantikaki, 2008).  Albeit empathy has an extensive history, the notion is considered as not well-defined because there are perhaps as many definitions of the word as there are researchers in the field (Decety & Jackson, 2004).

Stotland (1969) defines empathy as emotional reaction of one person due to the perception that another person is or about to experience an emotion. A manager with empathy skills is sensitive to the emotional states of subordinates and has ability of reflecting the emotions back to his subordinates to show he vicariously feels the same emotions. Thus, empathy is a combination of the basic skills of emotional sensitivity and emotional expressivity (Riggio, Tucker, and Coffaro, 1989). Hogan (1969, 308) describes empathy as "the act of constructing for oneself another person's mental state."

Manavi (2016) opines that the human drive to bond is a key motivator in any organization. Her study highlights the central qualities an empathetic manager exudes towards his employees as needs, admiration, healthy interaction, love, care, interest, compassion, and emotional sensitivity. The advancement of an organization rests on the shoulders of empathetic managers whose focus is building on relationships and understanding their employees. Empathetic managers are very receptive, and with this skill they tend to stay informed and always ahead of their peers, giving no room for mediocrity in the discharge of their duties in ensuring a healthy organizational relationship at all levels

Empathy is a constellation of many constructs and has broad applications in many areas. Riggio et. al. (1989) argued that what many consider as empathy or empathic ability can also be defined and understood in terms of basic communication or social skills. Empathy can be distinguished from sympathy. While sympathy emphasizes feeling bad for someone else by displaying sorrow or pity for the hardships encountered by another person (Krznaric, 2014), empathy emphasizes feeling with someone else by trying to understand but not necessarily agree to the other person’s emotions or perspectives (Pink, 2006).

Expressing empathy in a diverse workplace means making genuine effort to comprehend where people are coming from and providing direction that creates room for some form of compromise and divergent points of view. Creating time and attention to others fosters empathy, which in turn improves managers’ performance and perceived effectiveness. Although task-oriented skills such as planning, monitoring, controlling, and commanding are important in today's workplaces, understanding, and developing others is perhaps, more important. Empathy has to be properly expressed by a manager, in that he has to keep aside his beliefs or values irrespective of what he thinks and then put himself in the shoes of the subordinate. Doing this ultimately improves team bonding.

Goleman (2017) broke down three distinct types of empathy relevant to managers; cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassionate empathy. Cognitive empathy is the manager’s ability to understanding how an employee feels and what she might be thinking. Cognitive empathy, sometimes referred to as perspective-taking (Davis, 1983), requires managers to be self-aware and think about feelings rather than to feel them directly (Goleman, 2017). In other words, it is primarily involved with factors like understanding, thought and to some extent, intellect. It may also be referred to as affective empathy - a manager’s ability to share the feelings of employees or exhibit an appropriate emotional response to their situation.  Compassionate or empathic concern is what makes the manager take action to help employees, whichever way he can, and it goes beyond just understanding others and sharing their feelings. It is more concerned with physical sensation, feelings and mirror neurons in the brain. This kind of empathy suggests a transfer of exact natural feeling of one party to another such that both parties feel same way – a case of a manager and employee. Its impact is more evident in interpersonal relationships and more so it is career inclined - hence its application in human resources management and mentoring. Compassionate empathy offers a combination of both cognitive and emotional empathy and serves as the link between both. It is of a proactive response to the predicament as it were and concerned with intelligent actions promptly taken and perhaps a little of emotion as the case may be such that it impacts satisfactorily on affected parties. Going by the aforementioned categories of empathy, it is not out of place to put forward that it takes a right combination of them to effectively manage employees and motivate them as it involves empathy. Maintaining the balance is the key element of empathy response in any matter.

Two contemporary theories developed by researchers in an attempt to gain a better understanding of empathy are the simulation theory and the mind theory. Simulation Theory propounds that "empathy is possible because when we see another person experiencing an emotion, we simulate or represent that same emotion in ourselves so we can know firsthand what it feels like" (Psychology Today, 2010). The theory of mind suggests that observers can use cognitive thought processes to explain the mental. According to Psychology Today (2010, p.1), the idea of the theory of mind is to explain the "capacity to understand what another person is thinking and feeling based on rules for how one should think or feel". The empathy theory as put forward by Johannes Volkelt proposes that one is likely to react based on observation of a behaviour from another party by stimulating mental processes such that he returns a similar behaviour. Taking this further, one observes that it is via a befitting empathetic response that employees get to understand their managers and vice versa. In other words, employees will always react (respond) based on how they perceive the actual behaviour of their superiors to be. This is also reflected in theories by Robert Vischer, Martin Hoffman and Max Scheler. Empathy is a soft skill that is fundamentally feeling-centered, and the manner in which empathy skills are utilized by a manager goes a long way in determining how stimulated (motivated) his subordinates may get since his subordinates tend to make sense of his behaviour over time and react appropriately especially in a deliberate manner – the overall goal being to eliminate the empathy gap.


Employees in a diverse workplace have different characteristics ranging from cultural background, age, beliefs, value system to mention a few. These characteristics influence their motivation, perception, and ways of doing things. Effective employee motivation, therefore, is crucial for successful operation in such a diverse environment. Some traditional mechanisms of management in motivating employees include sharing of rewards, provision of work-life balance, offering benefits to employees, engaging employees with customized rewards, building a lasting relationship through open communication and being hard on employees. Despite the achievements of these mechanisms, managers still face a considerable challenge in getting results and inspiring exceptional performance at the workplace. Organizations need to know employee motivation now goes beyond the traditional reward systems because employee needs are significantly changing and compelling organizations into a constant search of new methods of motivation. Today’s workplace environment, especially a diverse workforce where motivation is employee-driven, calls for an advanced approach and consideration of employee emotions in management and performance. Empathy has emerged as a measurable skill that managers can use in building interpersonal relationship and motivation skills within an organization.

Employee motivation is contingent on an individual’s way of discerning things (Njoroge and Yazdanifard, 2014). Empathy makes both the employer and employee more flexible and compassionate (Bariso, 2014). Managers with high-level empathy skills know all their direct reports and able to make out time to develop a close professional relationship with members of their teams. This way, managers can easily have an idea of the needs of their subordinates and what drives them to excel, thus effectively supervising and motivating them. Choi (2006) observed that manager empathy is a catalyst to motivate subordinates, as empathetic managers understand and pay attention to their subordinates’ needs and desires in addition to including them in decision making. Thus, empathy skill is crucial in determining a manager’s efficiency.

A diverse workplace is a high-stress environment that requires empathic leadership. Goleman (2017) asserts that empathetic managers have an interpersonal power, high self-control to deal with stressful conditions and manage the behaviors of subordinates whose inner emotional state and feelings they often understand. Some scholars have cited empathy as an element of emotional intelligence (EI). According to Goleman (1998), emotional intelligence involves self-awareness, empathy, handling relationships, managing feelings, motivation. Emotionally intelligent/empathic managers can positively impact the work environment through emotional contagion and consequently raise the efficiency of subordinates and increase job performance. Empathy is an emotional skill a manager needs to understand and practice to be a great leader.

Managers with empathy skills know how to ignite the enthusiasm of people and stimulate their inner potential. This unique ability enables managers to motivate their employees to make unremitting efforts and dedicate themselves to the realization of the organization’s goals. Managers who have developed empathy skills can understand the intentions and feelings of subordinates who look out for encouragement and empathy from the managers’ side; they can then direct the emotions into positivity and get the best out of their teams. Badea and Pana (2010) summarized some of the characteristics and benefits high-level empathy skills can lead to as: capacity to build strong interpersonal relationships; a higher level of self-motivation; ability to motivate other employees; better performance rate; easy adaptation to changes; high self-acceptance; and high emotional resonance.


Modern literature has shown that the nature of leadership is changing and placing a greater emphasis on building and maintaining relationships. Managers, as leaders of their teams, need to be more people-focused and emotionally aware to function effectively in today’s workplace. They need to know the people that work for them—learn about their family life, pains, fears, future goals, interests, and hobbies. Although managers don’t have to become best friends with every single employee that reports to them, it is helpful to their team’s morale to have a friendly attitude and show empathy towards those that work for them.

It is noteworthy that managers are now required not only to lead people, but to collaborate with others, cross-organizational and cultural boundaries, and create shared direction and alignment with people or groups with different histories, perspectives, values, cultures, and other diverse characteristics. It stands to reason that empathy skill is desirable toward meeting these people-focused managerial and leadership requirements; and thus, a key factor for employee motivation in a diverse workplace.



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Author: Medinah H. Ibrahim, student at LIGS University.
The publication was under the supervision of Marian Stadler. 

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