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July 22, 2022

How to Balance Empathy with Assertiveness in Sales Management: An Essential Guide for Sales Managers

What goes into making a successful sales manager? 

It’s more than just having the technical know-how and acumen to lead a team. As a sales manager, you’re probably well aware of the importance mastering soft sales skills, such as the ability to show empathy and assertiveness, in the sales profession. 

Understanding the dynamics and personalities of your sales team is essential for any manager looking to build trust, rapport and camaraderie. This is where empathy comes in. 

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective – even if you don’t understand or agree. With so much emphasis being put on empathy today, many sales managers can confuse empathy for a kind of conflict adverse management style that continually lets their team off the hook.

Effectively balance empathy with assertiveness

So how do you strike that balance between empathy and assertiveness? 

Balancing empathy and assertiveness is of those things that feels like common sense but can be surprisingly difficult in practice.

In this guide, we’ve taken a look at some of the most effective ways to help you improve your sales management style through greater empathy while still retaining the assertiveness you need to properly set the team’s expectations, while not coming across as timid or pushy – in other words, empathetic assertiveness.

First let’s start by discussing ways to build empathy and trust among your sales teams, and then we will outline how to ensure you are balancing your empathy with a healthy dose of assertiveness.

Build Trust by Showing Empathy from the Start

The most effective way to build trust and empathy with a team is to show it from the start. And you do this by authentically getting know your team– taking active steps towards building real relationships with them.

Building authentic connections takes work, and most people can sniff out fake empathy. So it’s important to start building those relationships from day one through methods like having open office hours where you can hold one-on-one meetings with your team to find out what they’re struggling with, what they’re excited about, and what they think the team could be doing better. 

You can also try building connections outside of the office by asking your sales team out to coffee or organizing company-wide social outings to help build camaraderie between team members.

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Use Empathy to Understand Your Sales Team’s Needs

One of the most important skills to cultivate as a sales manager is the ability to empathize with your team and their needs.

As you build these relationships, the level of trust will grow within your team giving you the insight and ability to mentor and guide your team through the challenges they are facing.

While it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own worries and concerns, particularly when you’re managing a team, it’s important to prioritize the needs of your team and help them work through their sales struggles.

There are many ways to develop your empathy skills, but one of the most straightforward is to simply put yourself in your team’ shoes. Before you were a sales manager, you were a sales rep who most likely experienced many of the same challenges that your team faces today. Think back on this and ask yourself what your sales team might be going through.

I’ve been lucky to have great sales mentors in my life who were instrumental in my personal and professional development. They helped me achieve my numbers and also helped me develop as a person.Their guidance was invaluable to me in my career as a former vice president of sales, a sales trainer and speaker.

And when I think about these bosses, mentors, and sales manager, what sticks out with me almost 20 years later is the empathy they showed me at the low and challenging points in my life. This empathy, which is sometimes missing from sales management, enabled me to get through difficult times, enabled me to overcome obstacles in my career and helped drive me forward.

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Empathy in Sales Management?

So far we’ve focused on how to build empathy as a sales manager, but many times we are asked, “is there such a thing as too much empathy?”

The short answer is, “YES!”

When I speak on empathy in sales management, I am often asked how do I show empathy without getting overloaded with my sales team’s problems?”. Or even, “if I am too focused on empathy my team will take advantage of me.”

The truth is that when empathy goes too far it is sometimes referred to as toxic empathy. This is not really empathy at all–it is conflict avoidance.

Toxic empathy is real! Here are 5 problems that stem from managers who show too much empathy:

  • Too Much Empathy Leads to Bad Decision Making: According to Jonathan Bundy, an assistant professor of management in the W. P. Carey School of Business, an abundance of empathy and compassion can cloud judgement and lead to bad decision making.
  • Too Much Empathy Becomes Emotionally Draining: Leaders have their own problems and challenges that they face daily. When they show too much empathy to their team, they may quickly discover there is simply just not enough to go around, leaving them emotionally drained.
  • Too Much Empathy Can Alienate Other Team Members: Typically speaking, when a leader shows too much empathy it is usually directed at one or two specific team members. This can create a sense of favoritism in the group, and lead to other members of the team to feel disconnected and looked over.
  • Too Much Empathy Produces Weak Leadership: When leaders show too much empathy to their team they tend to seek too much input and avoid making unpopular decisions, which can lead to a type of paralysis among the team. This happens when a leader is more so focused on the feelings of the team members that they are afraid to make any decision (or be seen as the one making the decision) that might cause anxiety or disruption.
  • Too Much Empathy Makes Teams Less Accountable: When a leader shows too much empathy, it opens the door for team members to take advantage of their compassion and willingness to help. These over empathetic leaders usually cut their team too much slack, which ultimately leads to a team that does not take accountability for their actions.

The solution to toxic empathy is to properly balance empathy and assertiveness. While assertiveness without empathy can come across as insensitive or ever aggressive, the right balance of empathetic assertiveness shows that while you understand your teams perspectives, you still have clear expectations that must be met.

High-performing sales managers effectively practice empathetic assertiveness by showing they understand, while still setting clear expectations for success. In other words, empathy first, assertiveness second.

Assertive Empathy – Learn to be More Assertive While Still Being Empathetic

It’s important that sales managers demonstrate they understand what their salesperson is thinking or feeling. And it’s equally important for sales managers to discuss the reality of today’s business environment with an assertive management style.

This is where learning to balance empathy and assertiveness, or what some call compassionate assertiveness, comes in.

Sales managers might wonder how to be assertive at the same time you're showing empathy. And while assertive communication might seem like a very different skill from empathy, they’re actually closely related.

In order to be an effective sales manager, you need to exercise an assertive management style that challenges your team to perform at their best while still being empathetic enough to be a trusted advisor and friend. The key is finding the right balance of assertive empathy.

When salespeople feel that you know and understand their perspective, then and only then will they be open to an accountability conversation. When they feel understood, they are more open to understanding the need and urgency to get things done.

Assertive Empathy – Learn to be More Assertive While Still Being Empathetic

Show Empathy Without Sacrificing Your Own Voice

As a sales manager, you might find yourself in a tricky situation — you want to show empathy and be a trusted advisor to your team, but you also want to assert yourself as a manager and protect your team members from making bad decisions that could cost them their jobs.

How can you balance empathy with assertiveness?

Again it goes back to finding a healthy balance between showing empathy and asserting yourself.

You can do this by asking open-ended questions when you need to give your team members critical feedback and suggestions. For example, instead of saying, “You need to stop wasting time on social media,” try saying, “I notice you’ve been spending more time on social media lately. Is there a reason for that?”

These kinds of open-ended questions show empathy without being critical. They give your team members the opportunity to explain themselves and their actions, while still setting clear boundaries.


Empathy and assertiveness are extremely important soft-skills that all sales managers need to use in order to build trust and rapport among their teams.

Sales managers should work hard to strengthen this muscle and work on authentically listening to the challenges and perspectives of the team.

That said, be careful not to confuse empathy with a passive leadership style. This type of approach can lead to what we call, toxic empathy (too much empathy) which can result in a wide range of destructive outcomes.

True empathy works best when properly balanced with the right amount of assertiveness–what I call empathetic assertiveness

This balance of empathy and assertiveness lets your team know that you understand their point of view, while still setting clear expectations and holding the team accountable for their actions.

In this end balancing empathy with assertiveness will make you can be a better sales manager, allowing you to help your team members become top producing sales professionals.

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