Changing Jobs? Look for Empathetic Leadership in Your Next Manager


Remember “Out of the frying pan and into the fire?” This should be one of your key considerations as you go through the process of changing jobs. Will you land in a supportive, nurturing workplace, or will it be hell? Whether you decided to quit or were forced to leave, you want your next job to support your personal and professional goals – which means working for a manager who practices empathetic leadership.

Leadership And Leaders Are Changing 

Over the last few decades, organizational and leadership philosophies have evolved. The days of the old-school managers like Jack Welch at GE are dying out. Those who espoused a top-down, authoritarian leadership style with industrial-era management philosophies, are gradually giving way to more modern and progressive approaches, such as empathetic leadership.

As part of their focus on the company’s success, today’s leaders are expected to be more compassionate, create a more positive and inclusive work environment, and foster a culture of trust, collaboration, and mutual support.

From the traditional perspective, this may look like weakness or an abdication of authority, more and more studies show that productivity increases as workplace environments and decision-making become more employee-centric.

Don’t leave this question to chance! When changing jobs, be on the lookout for managers who embrace empathetic leadership. Look for someone who is engaged with and listens to their reports. Include this question in the regular due diligence and research you’ll do when applying to a position. This one factor could make the difference between a great job and an awful one. After all, you want to find a position where you have the best possible chance to make a purposeful contribution.

Be Careful What You Wish For…

If you’re coming from a toxic workplace, or even a department run by a well-meaning but old-school manager, you can’t afford to ignore this issue.

At the same time, don’t assume that simply leaving the bad job is going to improve your situation. Don’t think that because the recruiter or hiring manager says that they run a supportive and modern team, and make great promises during the interview process, that the reality is going to line up with their promises.

Without knowing what to look for, you may wind up back where you started and risk encountering the same issues. To break free from this cycle, start by getting clear on what didn’t work about your previous job, manager, or team. Do some journaling to get really clear about your Wish List, and your Dealbreakers List. Read the latest research on how a supportive work environment should feel. Network with colleagues who have successful work relationships, and seek out mentors or coaches who can provide guidance and support.

Practices of Empathetic Leaders

Let’s look at a handful of paradigm shifts that you can look for to distinguish between a more traditional (and potentially unsupportive environment) versus a more contemporary and nurturing work environment.

Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down

We work in flatter hierarchies today. There are more team-oriented departments and fewer pure 1:1 managerial relationships where you are reporting solely and directly to a single manager.

Communication is now a collaborative and information exchange process rather than a one-way directive from the top. Teams are empowered to share their ideas and insights, and managers are expected to listen and respond in a meaningful way to provide perspective, context, and decisions.

This approach builds an inclusive, participatory, and more empathetic workplace, giving more people in the organization an appropriate voice and, as a result, a greater emotional stake in the team’s or the company’s success.

Key takeaway: Look for the team you are joining to be and feel empowered in their work. If you get the opportunity to participate in a team interview, take note of how the team members relate to one another. Does everyone get the chance to ask you questions? Is one person dominating the session? Do they seem to like one another and work well together? Ask them about the company management style and watch their facial expressions as they respond.

If you get the sense that there is easy rapport, trust, and openness between them, and they don’t hesitate about praising their management, you may have found a great place to work (assuming they offer you the gig!).

Heart vs. Head

One of the hallmarks of empathetic leadership is a shift to a more heart-centered management approach. While traditional business culture avoided bringing feelings into work, and the common attitude was for workers to “suck it up” and leave their feelings at home, today’s workplace is different.

In the first place, we spend too much of our day intertwined between work and the rest of our lives to be able to maintain a clear demarcation between work life and home life. Additionally, our culture is much more educated and aware of the psychological impact of repressing feelings. The current focus on mental health at work is a reflection of the more complex and challenging times we live in. It is an acknowledgment that productivity and success rely on a whole-person approach to the working environment.

Leaders who are heart oriented are more focused on people and acknowledge healthy emotional connections as part of the working relationship. They understand that their reports are not emotionless automatons. They seek to better understand each of their reports so that they can find the best way to elicit strong performance coupled with personal support. This creates a safer and more trusting management relationship, which in turn leads to greater productivity, engagement, and creativity.

Key takeaway: In evaluating a new company or team, try to get a sense of how safe people feel on the job. Ask the recruiter or hiring manager about how encouraging the company is about people taking initiative. Is the focus more on conforming to company rules and policies, or on supporting employees in getting work done in my most effective way?

Post-pandemic, this may translate as company policy about on-site vs. remote work. Look for a combination of structure and flexibility. Not every job can or should be remote 100% of the time. But at the same time, not every job – or every project – should follow a cookie-cutter approach to getting things done. Don’t expect perfection – but a little messiness might be preferable to too much policy or red tape.

Facilitative vs. Directive

We’re no longer in an authoritarian working world where what the boss says is the way it goes.

Work is changing and moving too fast for top-down prescriptions. This is why team-centric work has been on the rise for decades. Accordingly, empathetic leadership becomes less about telling people how things should get done, and more about helping them find their own best way to get them done.

Managers today are more effective as facilitators who present assignments, projects, deadlines, and deliverables as opportunities for the team to bring their best work. In a bottom-up environment, agile and sprint-based work turns projects around faster, using a prototyping approach to iterate and refine finished projects, research, reports, and other deliverables.

An empathetic leader is going to want to include and leverage all of the voices and resources at their team’s disposal to engage with the work at hand. This means they will act as a resource to help and support those who need their help, while avoiding the kind of counterproductive micro-management that might have characterized an earlier era.

This leads to the next paradigm shift:

Leading From Behind vs. Leading From the Front

Empathetic leaders will not only spend their time encouraging and troubleshooting their team’s efforts. They will also take a different approach to overall leadership.

The old-school management style was exemplified by managers leading the charge and expecting reports to follow. It became a burnout culture that idolized sacrifice for the leader as a reflection of commitment. It was also a type of leadership often based on threats and competition: if you’re not keeping up — you’ll get left behind.

Studies show that this kind of cutthroat, high-pressure, take-no-prisoners culture doesn’t work. We now recognize that productivity actually comes from support, motivation, and collaboration. According to Deloitte research, a positive work environment can increase productivity and engagement.

So rather than being at the front of the charge and expecting everyone to follow, the empathetic leader leads from the rear. From that vantage point, they can see where everyone is going, who is keeping pace, who is going off-track, and who is stuck. This is a far more effective place to be. It ensures that the whole team will be able to stay together and stay in sync. It also means that the team will stay on course because the leader can see ahead and will make sure to shepherd the team in the correct direction.

Key takeaways: The facilitative, lead-from-behind approach is going to be important in your decision about whether your new or prospective company or team will be good for you and your future. When you interview with the hiring manager, ask them about their leadership style. If they say “I” a lot, and don’t say “we” or “they” a lot, you may be dealing with an old-school top-down manager. Bonus points if they include “you” in the conversation – as in “if you were to work here, we would encourage you to…” Taking the conversation in this direction doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get the offer, but it does mean that the manager is pre-disposed to an inclusive and facilitative management style.

The Future is All About Empathetic Leaders

Smart management is not about punching the clock and enforcing compliance anymore; it’s about empowering workers to connect with the meaning and the value of their work in order to motivate them.

The discussion points in this article are just a few of the criteria and practices you can consider in evaluating whether to apply to or accept a new position. Remember that your overall sense of well-being is going to directly impact the quality of the work that you do. Don’t think that by “toughing it out,” you’ll somehow make points and “show them” that you can handle the pressure or overcome the negativity.

Your job will have enough challenges without having to deal with an undermining, unconscious, or unsupportive manager.

While more and more leaders and managers recognize the value of today’s research and science-backed best practices, empathetic leadership is still going to be more the exception than the rule. All the more reason to ask more questions and do more research before you go too far down the road on a specific position.

What has your experience been? Have you recently “escaped” from a toxic manager? Any tips you could share with other readers to help them on their path?

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


  • Very useful and Insightful article! Touched many key truths including the shift to Heart based leadership. Check out heartmath institute and the work they have done.

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