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Empathetic Leadership in Experiential Learning

Empathetic leadership has never been so essential. Although it is up for debate if empathetic leadership can truly be “taught,” it can certainly be practiced and refined. Experiential learning — and, specifically, team-based business simulations — are a unique approach to help leaders understand and practice empathetic leadership.


Why is empathetic leadership so important? Why now?

The vast and varied challenges of the last year, from racial injustice to voting rights to the pandemic, highlighted the need for empathetic leadership at all levels and in all arenas.

Empathy is simply defined as the ability to identify with others and be aware of their thoughts and feelings. Empathetic leadership is rooted in bringing that perspective into your decisions and actions as a leader.

The conversation surrounding empathetic leadership has been around for many years, but that conversation took on new meaning in 2020 with the rapid transition to virtual work and virtual school during a time when a deadly virus consumed the mental energy of many people.

Leading with empathy, providing flexibility for people to be successful, and redefining what success looks like during ongoing turmoil are critical leadership challenges and imperative leadership skills to develop.

How do interactive business simulations help build empathetic leaders?

There are four main ways:

  1. They Create Space for Story Sharing

    Business simulations done right create thought-provoking scenarios that prompt leaders to share their experiences with similar situations or similar people. Scenarios are designed to be ambiguous, so the root cause of an issue is unclear and leads to inter-team debate. For example, is a tech malfunction due to employee misuse or an underlying technical problem? Should a leader suspend use of the tech, creating the possibility of disappointing customers, or should a leader maintain the course, potentially risking the safety of tech operators? Participants are encouraged to explain their logic behind selecting a particular course of action, which ultimately leads to cross-organizational story sharing. The example scenario above often leads to heated discussions and sometimes moral debates about the right course of action. By understanding the logic, thought processes, and experiences of individuals from different backgrounds and business units, leaders are able to build a diverse network and be more aware of the thoughts and feelings of others.

  2. They Create Character Archetypes

    Contextually rich business simulations create a myriad of characters and character archetypes who will face and respond to challenges in different ways. From an overzealous peer to a long-time manager who is resistant to change, simulations can stage important conversations about leading different types of people and how to develop individuals at all levels. In one early career business simulation, teams are tasked with giving career advice to two very different peers. Do young leaders recognize the different needs of these individuals, or are they blindly supportive of their ambitions or desire to leave the company? Understanding and reflecting upon the differences in direct reports, peers, or even superiors allow for a more informed and tailored approach for coaching, developing, and identifying with others.

  3. They Emphasize the Necessity to Lead with Inquiry

    Business simulations can leave a trail of information that participants need to uncover through inquiry. For example, participants may be presented with a series of information but only have time to look at a few of the materials. This forces participants to think strategically about how they use their time and what topics to prioritize. More often than not leaders will choose to review information that is more business related and less people/developmental related. In one Insight Experience business simulation, there is an entire storyline to be uncovered about an employee balancing the demands of being a single parent, something which impacts their daily schedule, but only a handful of teams ever uncover that information on their own. This type of activity holds a mirror up to leaders and their tendencies; while driving business results is critical, how do leaders balance that need with leading and developing people?

  4. They Create Opportunities to Practice having Difficult Conversations

    Finally, business simulations are more than just the simulation interface. While it is simple to select an option on the screen, some of the most powerful learning in a simulated experience occurs as a result of bringing the simulation metaphor to life through roleplays and live conversations. By practicing having a conversation and going through the experience of framing an issue, explaining their logic, and identifying next steps with another person, leaders can understand what went well, what could be done differently next time, and how the other person is feeling post-conversation. The team dynamic of roleplays also allows for valuable peer feedback about how a leader presented and showed up in a conversation.

Throughout a business simulation experience, leaders are continually confronted with how their values and perspective show in the business results they drive. By creating space to practice leading with empathy, business simulations can give leaders the tools and opportunities to reflect, which ultimately leads to success back on the job.

Krista Campbell is a Senior Associate Consultant at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.