Why Retail Needs More Empathetic Leaders 

Empathy is in short supply these days, as more meetings and relationships take place online rather than in person. I think this is a problem and we really need more empathy from leaders in these difficult times.

Generally, individuals who are more in touch with themselves emotionally are able to feel the pain, suffering and desires of others.  Some people tend to be better at empathy than others — in Western culture particularly men tend to suppress their emotions, which means they must work harder on developing their empathy than women. 

Qualities like competitiveness are seen as being more masculine, and traits like empathy as more feminine. Of course, this doesn’t mean that men can leave all the empathy to the women in their leadership teams, nor can women leave all the competing to the men. Hopefully, we all have the drive to advance these qualities of leadership equally.  

In June 2021, when setting up a new part of our business, a Flourish Foodhall & Kitchen, we were keen to incorporate the characteristics of good leadership, including empathy, right at the beginning. If management actively practices empathy it will spread throughout the organisation and eventually each customer, who will notice it and choose to spend more money with you.  This is particularly true within sectors where people are generally not treated well and paid poorly, such as retail and hospitality.


After only a couple of weeks before the first payday at Flourish, a butcher discovered that one of the chefs had been walking a considerable distance to work because he had run out of money from his previous employer to pay his bus fare. It goes without saying that if we had known about this then we would have done something, but rather than relying on someone else to take action, the butcher offered to give the chef a bike to get to work.  You can imagine how pleased I was at the start of this new venture to see empathy and kindness expressed this way. And it is indeed spreading to customers.  With very little marketing spend we are seeing queues for lunch and breakfast every day! 

Empathy can still be learned as an adult — which is good news for those of us who didn’t develop it in childhood. I only truly understood the magnitude of being empathetic later in my leadership career, and what I would have given to have grasped this from the beginning!

So, how do we grow in empathy? It is firstly about slowing down and not purely focusing on the goal or cause, but on the people who are going to get you there. Many entrepreneurs are very goal-focused and occasionally lose touch with the emotions of their people. Encouraging fellow managers to practice empathy in the workplace sets an important example, and spending time with others ‘not being productive’ is perfectly fine as it increases the development of deeper connections with your team members.

Second, it is vital to take the time to actively listen, and I mean really listen, which means putting your phone away.  Attuning your ear and listening for the meaning behind people’s words is imperative, as some may express their emotions in less direct ways. 

Finally, what will make us better leaders is improving our ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. I have found that spending more time in reflection and meditation makes me a person more able to listen to, trust and empathise with others. 

The word ‘empathy’ stems from the Greek empatheia — em (into) and pathos (feeling), suggesting a movement towards and into someone else’s emotions, moving from one place, ourselves, to another place — the other’s space, feelings and pain. If remembering great leaders who have guided us in the past triggers an emotional response in us, the likelihood is that they were highly empathetic leaders, which explains why we felt a connection with them.

If our goal is to be inspirational leaders, then we also need to develop empathy, or to put it more accurately, nurture the empathy within us. Those leaders who can embrace empathy will not only be the more successful leaders but also those who can change the world’. 

Paul Hargreaves is CEO of Cotswold Fayre and a B-Corp Ambassador, speaker and author of The Fourth Bottom Line: Flourishing in the new era of compassionate leadership out now.

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