After a trying year, leaders are finding success motivating and inspiring employees through acts of empathy.
By Marta Chmielowicz
As the world faced unprecedented challenges in 2020, employers differentiated themselves in equally unprecedented ways. Flexibility, transparency, emotional well-being, health and safety, inclusion, work-life balance—all of these became key priorities as companies squared off against an unpredictable future. The central element unifying these strategies? Empathy.
“If you think about the impact of COVID, remote work, and school closures, I think organizations that aren’t leading with empathy risk losing great talent,” says Lorraine Vargas Townsend, chief people officer of A Cloud Guru, a technology company delivering cloud computer training solutions. “Women and moms especially are dropping out of the workforce because organizations aren’t adapting fast enough. With all of the change, social and political unrest, and now natural disasters we are facing, the organizations that cannot be empathetic and put people first are going to lose because people’s expectations are changing.”
Research shows that the disruption that followed on the tail of the COVID-19 pandemic brought a renewed focus on empathy among business leaders and employees alike. According to Businessolver’s fifth annual State of Workplace Empathy Report, more than 90% of employees, HR professionals, and CEOs have said that empathy is important every single year since 2017.
Additionally, year over year, empathy plays a key role in employment decisions:
- 74% of employees said they would work longer hours for an empathetic employer;
- 75% of all employees and 83% of Generation Z employees would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over one that offered a higher salary; and
- 83% of employees would consider leaving their current organization for a similar role at a more empathetic organization.
In a world rocked by crisis, people are depending on their employers to be understanding and help them adapt to adversity. But the research suggests that there is often a disconnect between employees’ and company leaders’ understanding of empathy: While 91% of CEOs say their company is empathetic, only 68% of employees agree.
To make meaningful change in the lives of their employees and truly set their business up for future success, leaders need to embrace emotion, empathy, and vulnerability in ways that they have not had to do in the past.
“When I think of empathy, what I think of is the practice of caring enough to want to know how others are feeling and then being able feel those emotions,” says Peter J. Dean, founder and president of Leaders by Design and author of “Cultivating Leaders”. “For far too long, we’ve tried to strip the workplace of emotions.”
Empathy is also about finding balance. According to Dean’s model of empathy (see Figure 1), good outcomes result from the balance of three opposing forces: empathy versus ego, emotion versus thinking, and ethics versus power. In this model, empathy, emotion, and ethics form one pathway while ego, thinking, and thirst for power form another. Leaders who can balance these impulses in themselves and in their workforce through the practice of active listening, respect, and curiosity can become more empathetic and, ultimately, more effective.
“Ego is really the enemy of empathy,” he explains. “Operating with an unhealthy ego means protecting yourself against any threat of humiliation or negative feedback. By learning to be empathetic, leaders can actually strengthen the healthy ego because they become more aware of their and their employees’ emotional states; they make sure they’re not overburdening other people with their stress; they’re willing to identify how a tiny decision made in the C-suite affects the entire organization; and they’re willing to act ethically on behalf of their employees.”
According to Moe Vela, chief transparency officer at TransparentBusiness, leaders who are able to connect with their peers and direct reports in this way create mutually respectful employer-employee relationships that contribute to positive business outcomes, including increased productivity, greater loyalty, and stronger inclusion.
“Empathy allows us to better understand what matters to our employees and what drives them to excel,” says Jessie Lajoie, people operations lead at Doodle, an online meeting scheduling tool. “It encourages leaders to develop the talent of every employee based on their understanding of the whole person, not just what they do. That allows us to bring the best out of those we lead and rally them around a shared vision of the future, boosting organizational growth.”
Lajoie says that Doodle has noted measurable improvements in its culture and diversity metrics over the past year. She attributes this growth to the connections forged between employees of different cultures after the shift to remote work. In an effort to maintain human interaction during the worst of the pandemic, employees across global locations engaged with each other via the company’s Watercooler app, facilitating personal conversations about themselves, their cultures, and their families’ struggles coping with COVID. Through this natural process of honesty and vulnerability, employees opened each other’s minds to new perspectives and found commonality across experiences, boosting inclusion.
Leading with Care
Demonstrating a commitment and concern for employees’ health, wellness, and personal and professional success can strengthen culture and define a company as an employer of choice, ultimately improving the bottom line. This is especially important in today’s world where the realities of remote work have blurred the boundaries between work and home and introduced significant challenges for a large portion of the workforce.
“For so many people, working from home has changed their work-life situation,” says Howard Seidel, senior partner at Essex Partners, a division of Keystone Partners. “For folks with kids, managing that new reality has been challenging and I think empathy around that is really important. People have needed different kinds of support over the last year, both logistically in terms of office equipment but also emotionally.”
As organizations face a workforce dealing with significant stress, understanding employee needs and motivations has taken priority over pure productivity.
“This is a time to really encourage safe, transparent, and vulnerable conversations with parents,” says Vargas Townsend. “I think trying to figure out how you can measure outcomes of performance and not face time—that’s what really matters right now. And if an employee can’t deliver what you expect, you should support them anyway and remain flexible.”
Vela says that company leaders should initiate these conversations by asking a simple question: “How are you doing?” This encourages people to share when something challenging or monumental is occurring in their life, opening the door to greater connection. Leaders should then attempt to share a similar experience in return, drawing from their own life experiences to relate to the employee in a human way that makes them feel heard.
“Remember, empathy is about making sure employees feel seen, heard, respected, and they feel like you understand their plight,” says Vela. “The goal is to build on our commonalities, celebrate our differences, and find common ground.”
According to Dean, the second question leaders should ask is: “What can I do to enable you to do your job better?” This shows employees that their leader cares and is willing to empower them to do their best work.
Tara Antonipillai, founder of Tara Antonipillai Wellness, recommends that leaders make an intentional effort to create systems where these sorts of check-ins with managers and higher-level leaders are routine. Essex Partners, for example, has a policy where each of its leaders individually meet with five to six randomly chosen employees throughout the company for 30 minutes with no agenda. The goal is simply to understand what is on employees’ minds, what is working well, and what can be improved. The company is now in its fourth iteration of these meetings, and Seidel says that it has had a positive impact on organizational culture.
“In doing these one-on-one sessions, we’ve forged stronger bonds with people in other geographies than we might have otherwise. We’ve developed more of a sense of a national culture, probably because of the way we’re trying to connect with one other virtually,” he explains.
However, Antonipillai emphasizes that these conversations must be honest and authentic in order to be effective. Dean says that leaders should continuously do mental checks to make sure that they are actively listening, giving the employee ample opportunity to speak, and responding without judgment or internal bias. Otherwise, leaders may unintentionally design solutions that are inappropriate or ineffective at addressing the employees’ needs.
For example, at press time, Vargas Townsend was helping her employees in Texas cope with record-setting freezing temperatures and widespread power outages. Her team’s initial solution was to book hotel rooms for employees so they could have power, but after receiving employee feedback, they understood this was not the right route to take. Employees did not want to leave their houses because driving was a safety hazard and they needed to make sure their pipes wouldn’t freeze.
“We might have caused our employees undue harm or stress by coming up with a solution, but when you’re in a crisis, you have a tendency to just come up with an answer,” she explains. “I think one of the things that’s helpful is to stop and ask lots of questions and then to really listen. It takes vulnerability to say, ‘I don’t have the answer, why don’t you tell me what you’re going through and tell me how I can help?’ So, I think that’s the best practice: stop and be curious.”
Dean offers another example: A coaching client of his was being considered for an exciting assignment in Paris. Without asking her, a company leader assumed she would not be interested because she had a husband and kids who would also need to relocate. Ultimately, the opportunity was given to somebody else.
“One could argue that the gentleman was thinking about her empathetically, but he really wasn’t because he didn’t care enough to involve her in that discussion,” Dean explains. “Instead of going through the emotional conversation with her, which would involve empathy, he took the ego path and decided to make the decision for her.”
Supporting Employee Goals
An empathetic approach to leadership requires supporting employees in reaching their personal and professional goals and fulfilling their inner purpose. This requires first understanding employees’ underlying motivations and then developing a clear plan to align those goals with the broader objectives of the company.
“One of the responsibilities of leadership is to define the long-term vision of the organization and to establish more short-term goals for employees in order to transform those plans into reality,” says Lajoie. “That’s where there should be more focus—spend more time learning about the needs and inner purpose of the employees and then really set the tone in the approach taken by the employees to achieve the organizational goals.”
Once leaders understand the motivations that are driving their employees, they can set clear expectations and guidelines and check in frequently to see how employees are progressing on those goals. Marius Ronnov, CEO of Cubert, a company creating care brands that support health and happiness, says that leaders at his organization speak with their teams every quarter to understand what they are trying to accomplish for the business and how their motivations are evolving.
“Sometimes, that means that people tell me that they’re planning a family or they’re saving up for a house or that they’re working really hard because they’re motivated about a certain part of the business,” he explains. “Individual contributors have an open rapport where they can lay their cards on the table with their senior manager, and we can help them plan towards where they want to be in their life and in the business. And that’s really important—this is a very open, candid rapport where the direct manager suddenly becomes a mentor or a confidant in the individual contributor’s development. It’s at the core of what it means to be empathetic.”
Based on these conversations, managers set specific alignment opportunities for their team members. Objectives and key results are discussed quarterly and in weekly one-on-one check ins, giving leaders an opportunity to frequently connect with team members on goals and ensuring better organizational alignment.
In turn, Ronnov says that he is also very open about his own priorities and development goals as a business leader. “It’s a humbling experience because employees align to my goals very often once they understand why my priorities are what they are. Getting into a conversation about the motivations behind priorities and using that as a tool almost every time you connect is really important.”
Remaining candid and transparent about business performance—good or bad—is another component of empathetic leadership that should not be ignored. Offering visibility into key performance indicators and being honest about the failures of the business gives employees a sense of shared responsibility for business success and safety in making mistakes.
Cubert does this by leading weekly all-hands meetings to share updates and discuss learnings. These meetings follow the same structure every week, communicating a range of metrics to help employees build up their business acumen while digging into the company’s quarterly learnings.
“We try to break it down into why we think we failed or succeeded, and then we invite a couple of individual contributors to give us their assessment because they were in the field creating some of these results—good or bad—and they articulate some of the things that they learned as well,” says Ronnov. “This gives employees as much information and insight into the business as we possibly can, and in return, we get trust and responsibility.”
This is something that Doodle is attempting to implement as well. According to Lajoie, the company has organized weekly talks between product teams to discuss failures and learn from mistakes together. This reduces product silos, creates a safe space for learning, and improves connection across the organization.
By being radically honest with the workforce about company performance, Ronnov says that he can feel safe trusting that his employees will make good decisions based on what is best for the business and their understanding of its overall objectives.
“Trust truly comes from a place of giving team members the reigns and the resources to show what they can do,” he explains. “That is really something we’re emphasizing—giving employees the ability to make choices for the business and for themselves within specific guardrails and visibility into our business.”
Creating Opportunities for Connection
While sharing goals, business successes, and even failures undoubtably produces cohesion across teams, leaders should also make sure that they create opportunities for employees to connect on a personal level.
“It was 2017 when I saw the first study that people are really lonely at work and that the more stress and pressure you’re under, the lonelier you feel,” says Vargas Townsend. “I think really finding ways to build deep, personal, and authentic connections between as many people as you can builds empathy.”
This is especially true in the remote or hybrid environment. Vela says that managers will need to become more creative in their approaches—and so far, they have been. From virtual happy hours to cooking classes, organizations are innovating to create opportunities for team members to connect, bond over an activity, and engage with each other without fear of ramification.
“Some of Doodle’s practices in connecting with employees include scheduling one on ones, especially with our leadership team or their mentors or even cross-functionally between employees,” shares Lajoie. “We host virtual retreats, special happy hours, or even team wins—if we just successfully launched a product, we’ll definitely have a happy hour and either share a meal or a drink and have a virtual chat.”
Antonipillai says that affinity groups can be a great place to hold these conversations in a small group setting that is already unified under a race or ethnicity, similar background, or common interest. “It can be in a variety of different ways, but those small common interest groups seem to work better than, for example, a big social event or company happy hour. A more focused, small group seems to foster that sense of community and empathy,” she explains.
Recognition can also be leveraged to as a tool to promote greater social connection and gratitude between employees. This is particularly important at Cubert, where Ronnov says that at the end of weekly all-hands meetings, each team member is asked to speak about one thing that they’re grateful for and one great thing that a team member did that week. While this can sometimes feel intimidating in front of a big group, he says that it forces people to get comfortable communicating gratitude and treating their team members as human beings.
“This is a trick I use to demonstrate empathy,” says Vela. “I don’t wait to ask how somebody is doing until I need something from them. Every day, I block out at least 20 to 30 minutes of my day to just send a random note to somebody in my sphere—an employee, a colleague, a client. That is an incredible best practice because it shows that you care, that you’re thinking of them, and that it’s not just when you need them.”
The disruption of the past year has forced business leaders to rethink the paradigm of the employer-employee relationship for the better. As companies and employees faced unprecedented obstacles, they have been forced to become more empathetic in their words and actions, creating a more inclusive, human workplace that is here to stay.
“I think it will continue to be a priority going forward because in some ways, this has been somewhat eye opening for senior leadership in the sense that they now have a deeper understanding of what their employees’ human struggles are on a day-to-day basis. I’m not sure once you’ve seen that, you can unsee it,” says Antonipillai.