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Engaging the Hearts and Minds of Followers: Leader Empathy and Language Style Matching During Appraisal Interviews

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Leader empathy has received increased scholarly and practical attention in recent years. However, empirical studies that explore the functionality of leader empathy and that disclose which objective micro-level behaviors actually characterize empathic face-to-face interactions remain sparse. This study explores the role of leaders’ empathic communication style in a sample of 48 audiotaped performance appraisal interviews. Our multimethod approach disclosed that ratings of supervisors’ empathic communication style were positively related to employees’ intentions to change and to employees’ perceptions of supervisor likeability. Fine-grained linguistic analyses (N = 358,586 words) further provided insights into the underlying behavioral manifestation of leader empathy: verbal mimicry in the form of language style matching between supervisors and employees was positively related to supervisors’ empathic communication style. Additional analyses showed that supervisors who communicated more empathically used less second-person pronouns (“you”) and agreed more frequently with their employees. Finally, we found differences in the mean percentage use of personal pronouns between supervisors and employees. Specifically, supervisors used significantly more second-person (“you”) and first-person plural (“we”) pronouns and fewer first-person singular (“I”) pronouns than their employees. We discuss how the findings of this field study enhance our theoretical understanding of leader empathy as a functional leadership skill, and we highlight practical recommendations for conducting more effective appraisal interviews.

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Correspondence to Annika L. Meinecke.

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Meinecke, A.L., Kauffeld, S. Engaging the Hearts and Minds of Followers: Leader Empathy and Language Style Matching During Appraisal Interviews. J Bus Psychol 34, 485–501 (2019).

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