11/30 – Examining Empathy in Team Leader Practices: A Qualitative Case Study

Rick Fenwick Jr.

Rick Fenwick Jr. 

Rick Fenwick

Rick Fenwick Jr.


In many organizational settings, companies use the team concept in order to accomplish organizational goals in a timely and efficient manner. In manufacturing settings, organizations use the team concept to complete tasks such as building products in bulk quantities, as well as provide safety to employees. In this type of setting, every team has a team leader who is responsible for providing support to the team members (coworkers) and ensuring that the team accomplishes organizational goals. In many organizations, there is a disparity in teams. Some teams are successful in completing organizational goals and have high team morale, while other teams struggle in meeting goals and have low team morale. Many possible factors play in to explaining why there are disparities in teams. One possible explanation for disparity in teams is empathy. The research study conducted was an exploratory qualitative case study involving interviews with 14 team leaders of an automotive factory in the United States. The purpose of the case study was to examine the role of empathy used by team leaders with their coworkers. The results from the data collection found the following themes: reciprocation, offering supportive behaviors, better work culture, relationship building, increased team morale, increased involvement in running the business, recognition, determining factors for deciding to use empathy, and connection with coworkers.


In many industries and organizational settings, companies use team concept in order to complete organizational tasks and goals. When organizations use the concept of teams, normally there is a team leader who represents the team and provides support for team members. Previous research has shown that it is important for team leaders to provide support to team members. When team members believe that they are receiving support from leaders and the organization as a whole, it increases employee outcomes such as goal achievement and performance (Guzzo & Dickson 314). When team members perceive that there is not enough support being provided by the organization and leaders, it can potentially decrease performance, achievements, and morale (Bashur, Hernandez, & Gonzalez-Roma 558). Previous research has illustrated the importance of leaders providing support for team members. Support can come in many forms, including empathy. Empathy has been defined as “when one person vicariously experiences the feelings, perceptions, and thoughts of another” (Pedersen & Pope 841). The problem is that many team leaders use empathy in leading organizational work teams; however, it is unclear how peer team leaders use empathy in leading organizational work teams (Drach-Zahavy 235). When empathy is used in the workplace, it has many advantages. A study conducted by Lilius, Worline, Maitlis, Kanov, Dutton, and Frost (202) explored the frequency of empathy used with employees within a hospital. The researchers found that the majority of the participants reported that they receive empathy primarily from coworkers with a frequency that ranged from occasionally to frequently. The results from the study also illustrated that when employees receive empathy in the workplace, it provides positive emotion, stronger organizational commitment, and leaves a longer, lasting impression on the employees in a positive manner (Lilius et al. 210). The results from this study provide evidence showing that it is beneficial for the organization when coworkers demonstrate empathy with other coworkers.

Another study conducted by Moon, Hur, Ko, Kim, and Yoo (84) examined positive work-related identity as a mediator between empathy and employee outcomes. The study included 317 participants from multiple firms in South Korea. The results showed that when empathy is demonstrated in the workplace, it is associated with positive work-related identities, an increase in organizational commitment, and a decrease in employee turnover (Moon et al., 91). The researchers found that when employees receive empathy from others in the workplace, numerous positive employee outcomes take place. From a practical implication perspective, this is a major finding because organizational leaders may focus on using empathy in the workplace in order to achieve higher employee performance.

Previous research has shown that empathy in the workplace increases organizational commitment and employee performance; there are other advantages as well. A study conducted by Chu (62) investigated the impact of empathy in a hospital with the nursing staff. The results showed that when the nursing staff received empathy from supervisors, coworkers, and residents, the organizational citizenship behaviors of the nurses increased. Chu explained that when the nursing staff received empathy from others, they believed that people cared about them as people. This also caused an increase in positive moods from the nursing staff (Chu, 65). The final takeaway from this study illustrated that when nurses received empathy from others; the staff became more attentive to organizational responsibilities and going out of their way to help others  (Chu, 66). These findings support previous research conducted by Lilius et al. (210) in that empathy in the workplace increases positive behaviors from employees. Previous research has shown that empathy has many advantages in the workplace (Chu, 66; Lilius et al. 210), but not all organizations utilize empathy in the workplace. Tsai, Tsai, and Huang (612) explored the experiences of nurses in a nursing home environment when transferring residents from nursing homes to emergency hospitals. The researchers found that nurses take care of residents while the residents are staying in the nursing home; however, when the residents are transferred to emergency hospitals, the nurses experience a disconnect from the resident and the family of the resident. This experience takes a negative toll on the nurses including discontinuity in family involvement, medical resources, and nurses’ professional role (Tsai, Tsai, & Huang, 613). The nurses spend their time taking care of residents and forming a bond with the residents and their families while in the nursing home. When the resident is transferred though, the communication stops and the nursing staff do not know the status of the resident. This illustrates how empathy can play a major role in relationships in positive outcomes as well as negative outcomes.

Purpose of the Study

There is previous research investigating leadership and empathy, explaining the benefits for the organization as a whole (Fuqua & Newman 136), but no previous research investigating how team leaders demonstrate empathy in leading teams of coworkers who are considered equals in regards to authority and pay. Thompson (26) and Macaluso (9) examined the use of empathy from leaders with employees; however, that included the leaders having authoritative power, which changes the dynamic between leaders and employees. The purpose of this study was to examine the particular behaviors that peer team leaders demonstrated with their team members when displaying empathy.

Research Design

The qualitative methodology for the research study was an exploratory case study. An exploratory case study was the best approach for this study because it involved interviewing peer team leaders from one particular organization, and inquiring into how they used empathy in leading their teams of hourly employees (Yin 107). Yin explained that a case study is an inquiry that investigates a phenomenon within “its real-life context” (107), the boundaries between context and experiences that are not clear, and in which multiple sources of evidence are used. This case study explored the phenomenon of empathy and how it is used from a peer team leader role in a real organization in order to help teams of coworkers be successful in completing organizational goals and tasks.  The case study investigated how team leaders use empathy to lead their teams of coworkers. The study was conducted using structured, open-ended conversational interviews with team leaders of a particular organization. The team leaders who participated in the study had to fit a certain criteria in order to participate in the study.  Participants had to be hourly employees who represented the team leader position within a team of hourly employees. Participants included male and female adults, who were team leaders and used empathy in leading their work teams. The recruitment of participants included emailing all team leaders within the automotive factory, explaining the purpose of the research study, and criteria for participation. Team leaders who were interested in participating in the research study contacted the researcher to set up a time for the interview session. The criteria explained that in order to participate in the study, each participant had to be a current team leader, been in the position for a minimum of 6 months, and used empathy in leading their team of coworkers. Each interview took place with one participant in a one-on-one session for 30 minutes. The interview session involved asking open-ended questions to the participants in regards to how they used empathy in leading their teams of hourly employees. After all interviews were completed, the researcher e-mailed each participant with a copy of the transcript and requested that they make any corrections necessary to ensure accuracy throughout the data collection process.


Participants for the study included team leaders in a large factory who lead teams of coworkers that range from four to 15 coworkers per team. Team leaders are responsible for ensuring that their team reaches their production goal on a daily basis, as well as completing other responsibilities such as relieving coworkers for breaks, completing audits for their work area, and paperwork for various projects such as safety protocols and parts made. The numerous responsibilities make the team leader position challenging because team leaders have to balance running their area successfully on a day to day basis, while also ensuring that they are providing support to their coworkers as needed. This study included 14 participants in total, 13 males and one female, with an age range from 35-65 years. All 14 participants had a wide range of experience at the team leader position within the factory, ranging from 2 to 30 years of experience. Twelve of the participants had been team leaders for multiple teams within the factory as well. The results from interviewing 14 participants show that there are many positive aspects related to team leaders using empathy as a tool in leading their teams of coworkers.

Table 1: Composite Themes and Patterns that Represent All of the Participants

Discussion of Results

From interviewing team leaders about how they use empathy with coworkers and the factors they consider when determining to use empathy or not, there are numerous themes that lead to lessons learned from the study. One lesson learned is that when team leaders receive empathy from their supervisor, it becomes influential for them to use empathy with their coworkers (Fenwick Jr 80). This is the starting point for creating a positive work environment. A second lesson learned is that team leaders view the attitude of the coworker as a major factor in deciding to use empathy or not. The third lesson learned is that team leaders have multiple benefits from using empathy with coworkers, such as reciprocation, gratitude, and an increase in employee morale. This shows that team leaders should want to use empathy with coworkers in order to make the job easier for them and their team of coworkers. The last lesson learned is that when team leaders use empathy, it has a positive impact on the entire team (Fenwick Jr 80). Teams enjoy working together and building rapport with each other when the team leader demonstrates empathy. This is consistent with Lehmann-Willenbrock and Allen (1278) and their study with organizational teams and humor. The findings from their study showed that particular behaviors from leaders such as humor, in a team setting, might have a positive influence on team interactions and team performance (Lehmann-Willenbrock & Allen 1285). The aspect of team interactions in that study is similar to the characteristic of rapport building in the current study. When leaders find ways to interact with teams of coworkers, it might have a positive influence on the interactions between coworkers.

After interviewing 14 participants and asking questions about the use of empathy, the results showed that team leaders gain numerous benefits from using empathy with coworkers, such as gratitude, reciprocation, and increase in employee morale (Fenwick Jr 81). The attitude of the coworker is the primary factor for team leaders when determining whether or not they use empathy with coworkers. When team leaders receive empathy from their supervisor, it plays an important role in how they interact with their coworkers. Lastly, the use of empathy from team leaders helps create an atmosphere where the team enjoys working with each other and finds numerous ways to build rapport together (Fenwick Jr 81).


In the research study, there were limitations that may have had in impact on the results found. One limitation was that the interviews took place at different times throughout one day (Fenwick Jr 86). A study conducted by Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso (6889) found that judicial decisions in the court system decrease significantly towards the end of the day (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 6891). The reason for this is that judges were too tired at the end of the day to make more decisions (Danziger et al. 6892). These findings are similar to the limitation in the current study involving the time of interviews with participants. The interviews took place during each participant’s regular shift hours; each participant conducted the interview at different times throughout their shift. For example, one participant may have started his or her shift for three hours and then conducted the interview. Another participant may have started his or her shift by conducting the interview, while others may have completed the interview at the end of their shift. Depending on when the participants conducted the interviews, their emotions could have played a role in their responses to questions. Nozaki (763) explained that emotional competence includes the ability to use the concept of trait in regards to emotions. This refers to how people behave in particular ways during emotional situations (Nozaki, 770). Nozaki explained that people in general might have a difficult time behaving particular ways depending on the strength of the emotion. As an example, it is possible that a participant could have gotten in to an argument with a coworker, and then came in for the interview and had a different frame of mind then normal due to particular circumstances for that day.

A second limitation to the study included potential stress during the day of interviews. Kahn and Byosiere (648) explained that stressors might impact the responses of a person psychologically, physiologically, or behaviorally. If team leaders were concerned or stressed about work, then the responses to questions may have been biased or not fully thought out. For future research, it would be helpful to conduct data collection on a day where work stressors are at a minimum, so that participants can fully focus on the questions being asked (Fenwick Jr 87).


One recommendation for future research includes investigating a possible correlation between team leaders receiving empathy, and team leaders using empathy with coworkers. Team leaders who explained that they receive empathy from their supervisor also explained that it became influential for them to use empathy with their teams of coworkers. Participants who did not receive empathy from their supervisor did not typically use empathy with their coworkers. Future research could investigate this phenomenon in more detail to find out if there is a correlation between receiving and demonstrating empathy. Previous research from Byrne and Hochwarter (217) explained that when employees believed they were receiving support from leaders, the level of performance from employees increased. Byrne and Hochwarter also noted that when employees believed that they were not receiving support from leaders, performance levels from employees decreased (217). That research could be applied to team leaders receiving empathy from supervisors and how they perform with their responsibilities as a team leader.

A second recommendation for future research involves the amount of times each team leaders demonstrates empathy with coworkers based upon each behavior. Team leaders gave examples of how they demonstrate empathy with coworkers on a daily basis, which helps understand how empathy is used. An unknown at this time is how often team leaders are demonstrating each particular behavior, and the short-term benefits for every time the behaviors are demonstrated. This type of research study could potentially quantify how often empathy should be used from a team leader perspective (Fenwick Jr 88).

Recommendations for Intervention

One recommendation is to investigate the production numbers of teams and comparing the numbers to the amount of empathy used by team leaders. One of the original problems included a disparity in teams based upon morale and efficiency in completing organizational goals (Byrne & Hochwarter, 224). It is possible that teams with team leaders who demonstrate empathy have more efficient production numbers versus teams where the team leader does not use empathy. Monden explained that manufacturing organizations began using lean production in order to make teams and processes lean and as efficient as possible, eliminating roles and materials that were considered unnecessary (Monden, 3). The exploration of use of empathy from team leaders with coworkers, compared with production numbers of teams would have high interest from a top leadership perspective in manufacturing organizations, as the ideal goal would be to have all teams with high efficiency rates for production numbers, using the lean production method. With a disparity in teams, empathy from team leaders may play a role in production efficiency (Fenwick Jr 89).


This research study examined how team leaders within an automotive factory use empathy in leading their teams of coworkers. After interviewing 14 team leaders, results showed that team leaders use multiple behaviors on a daily basis that demonstrate empathy with coworkers. These behaviors also provide additional benefits for the team leaders, coworkers, and teams as a whole, including higher team morale, higher employee morale, and reciprocation between team leaders and coworkers. It was found that team leaders ultimately use the attitudes of coworkers to determine whether they will use

empathy with coworkers. Team leaders who receive empathy from their supervisor become influenced in using empathy with their own teams of coworkers. These results show that empathy has benefits for team leaders, teams, and the organization as a whole, as the culture and work environment have employees with high morale. With an understanding of how team leaders use empathy with their teams of coworkers, including particular behaviors demonstrated, it is possible that organizations in the future could provide training to team leaders to show how to use empathy in particular situations with coworkers. With numerous benefits to stakeholders when team leaders use empathy, it would seem appropriate that organizations would desire every team leader to use empathy as a tool in their leadership toolbox with their teams of coworkers.


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About the Author

Rick Fenwick Jr., Ph.D., is a consultant, professor, and speaker. Rick has worked as an organizational consultant since 2001, conducting customized training programs for manufacturing, customer service, and union organizations. His certifications in personality theory and conflict resolution have taken him around the country speaking on the topics of stress resiliency, consulting, and team building. His most recent work focuses on mindful leadership and attention. Rick works as an adjunct professor at multiple schools, including Columbia Southern University, Macomb Community College, and Henry Ford College, in the Psychology Department, and at Bowling Green State University in the School of Business. He is currently the Head Coach of the hockey team at Henry Ford College, and teaches focused leadership to athletes of all sports. Rick has a Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Capella University and is a Partner at Fenwick Training & Development, LLC, in Novi, Michigan.

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