After a trying year, leaders are finding success motivating and inspiringÂ employees through acts of empathy.
By Marta Chmielowicz
As the world faced unprecedented challenges inÂ 2020, employers differentiated themselves in equallyÂ unprecedented ways. Flexibility, transparency, emotionalÂ well-being, health and safety, inclusion, work-lifeÂ balanceâall of these became key priorities as companiesÂ squared off against an unpredictable future. The centralÂ element unifying these strategies? Empathy.
âIf you think about the impact of COVID, remote work,Â and school closures, I think organizations that arenâtÂ leading with empathy risk losing great talent,â saysÂ Lorraine Vargas Townsend, chief people officer of AÂ Cloud Guru, a technology company delivering cloudÂ computer training solutions. âWomen and momsÂ especially are dropping out of the workforce becauseÂ organizations arenât adapting fast enough. With all ofÂ the change, social and political unrest, and now naturalÂ disasters we are facing, the organizations that cannotÂ be empathetic and put people first are going to loseÂ because peopleâs expectations are changing.â
Research shows that the disruption that followed on theÂ tail of the COVID-19 pandemic brought a renewed focusÂ on empathy among business leaders and employeesÂ alike. According to Businessolverâs fifth annual StateÂ of Workplace Empathy Report, more than 90% ofÂ employees, HR professionals, and CEOs have said thatÂ empathy is important every single year since 2017.
Additionally, year over year, empathy plays a key role inÂ employment decisions:
- 74% of employees said they would work longer hours forÂ an empathetic employer;
- 75% of all employees and 83% of Generation Z employeesÂ would choose an employer with a strong culture ofÂ empathy over one that offered a higher salary; and
- 83% of employees would consider leaving their currentÂ organization for a similar role at a more empatheticÂ organization.
In a world rocked by crisis, people are depending on theirÂ employers to be understanding and help them adapt toÂ adversity. But the research suggests that there is oftenÂ a disconnect between employeesâ and company leadersâÂ understanding of empathy: While 91% of CEOs say theirÂ company is empathetic, only 68% of employees agree.
To make meaningful change in the lives of their employeesÂ and truly set their business up for future success, leadersÂ need to embrace emotion, empathy, and vulnerability inÂ ways that they have not had to do in the past.
âWhen I think of empathy, what I think of is the practiceÂ of caring enough to want to know how others are feelingÂ and then being able feel those emotions,â says Peter J.Â Dean, founder and president of Leaders by Design andÂ author of âCultivating Leadersâ. âFor far too long, weâveÂ tried to strip the workplace of emotions.â
Empathy is also about finding balance. According toÂ Deanâs model of empathy (see Figure 1), good outcomesÂ result from the balance of three opposing forces:Â empathy versus ego, emotion versus thinking, and ethicsÂ versus power. In this model, empathy, emotion, andÂ ethics form one pathway while ego, thinking, and thirstÂ for power form another. Leaders who can balance theseÂ impulses in themselves and in their workforce throughÂ the practice of active listening, respect, and curiosity canÂ become more empathetic and, ultimately, more effective.
âEgo is really the enemy of empathy,â he explains.Â âOperating with an unhealthy ego means protectingÂ yourself against any threat of humiliation or negativeÂ feedback. By learning to be empathetic, leaders canÂ actually strengthen the healthy ego because they becomeÂ more aware of their and their employeesâ emotionalÂ states; they make sure theyâre not overburdening otherÂ people with their stress; theyâre willing to identify howÂ a tiny decision made in the C-suite affects the entireÂ organization; and theyâre willing to act ethically onÂ behalf of their employees.â
According to Moe Vela, chief transparency officer atÂ TransparentBusiness, leaders who are able to connectÂ with their peers and direct reports in this way createÂ mutually respectful employer-employee relationshipsÂ that contribute to positive business outcomes, includingÂ increased productivity, greater loyalty, and strongerÂ inclusion.
âEmpathy allows us to better understand what mattersÂ to our employees and what drives them to excel,â saysÂ Jessie Lajoie, people operations lead at Doodle, anÂ online meeting scheduling tool. âIt encourages leadersÂ to develop the talent of every employee based on theirÂ understanding of the whole person, not just what theyÂ do. That allows us to bring the best out of those we leadÂ and rally them around a shared vision of the future,Â boosting organizational growth.â
Lajoie says that Doodle has noted measurableÂ improvements in its culture and diversity metrics over theÂ past year. She attributes this growth to the connectionsÂ forged between employees of different cultures afterÂ the shift to remote work. In an effort to maintain humanÂ interaction during the worst of the pandemic, employeesÂ across global locations engaged with each other viaÂ the companyâs Watercooler app, facilitating personalÂ conversations about themselves, their cultures, and theirÂ familiesâ struggles coping with COVID. Through thisÂ natural process of honesty and vulnerability, employeesÂ opened each otherâs minds to new perspectives andÂ found commonality across experiences, boostingÂ inclusion.
Leading with Care
Demonstrating a commitment and concern forÂ employeesâ health, wellness, and personal andÂ professional success can strengthen culture and define aÂ company as an employer of choice, ultimately improvingÂ the bottom line. This is especially important in todayâsÂ world where the realities of remote work have blurredÂ the boundaries between work and home and introducedÂ significant challenges for a large portion of theÂ workforce.
âFor so many people, working from home has changedÂ their work-life situation,â says Howard Seidel, seniorÂ partner at Essex Partners, a division of Keystone Partners.Â âFor folks with kids, managing that new reality hasÂ been challenging and I think empathy around that isÂ really important. People have needed different kinds ofÂ support over the last year, both logistically in terms ofÂ office equipment but also emotionally.â
As organizations face a workforce dealing withÂ significant stress, understanding employee needs andÂ motivations has taken priority over pure productivity.
âThis is a time to really encourage safe, transparent,Â and vulnerable conversations with parents,â says VargasÂ Townsend. âI think trying to figure out how you canÂ measure outcomes of performance and not face timeâthatâs what really matters right now. And if an employeeÂ canât deliver what you expect, you should support themÂ anyway and remain flexible.â
Vela says that company leaders should initiate theseÂ conversations by asking a simple question: âHow areÂ you doing?â This encourages people to share whenÂ something challenging or monumental is occurringÂ in their life, opening the door to greater connection.Â Leaders should then attempt to share a similar experienceÂ in return, drawing from their own life experiences toÂ relate to the employee in a human way that makes themÂ feel heard.
âRemember, empathy is about making sure employeesÂ feel seen, heard, respected, and they feel like youÂ understand their plight,â says Vela. âThe goal is to buildÂ on our commonalities, celebrate our differences, and findÂ common ground.â
According to Dean, the second question leaders shouldÂ ask is: âWhat can I do to enable you to do your jobÂ better?â This shows employees that their leader cares andÂ is willing to empower them to do their best work.
Tara Antonipillai, founder of Tara Antonipillai Wellness,Â recommends that leaders make an intentional effortÂ to create systems where these sorts of check-ins withÂ managers and higher-level leaders are routine. EssexÂ Partners, for example, has a policy where each of itsÂ leaders individually meet with five to six randomly chosenÂ employees throughout the company for 30 minutes withÂ no agenda. The goal is simply to understand what is onÂ employeesâ minds, what is working well, and what can beÂ improved. The company is now in its fourth iteration ofÂ these meetings, and Seidel says that it has had a positiveÂ impact on organizational culture.
âIn doing these one-on-one sessions, weâve forgedÂ stronger bonds with people in other geographies thanÂ we might have otherwise. Weâve developed more of aÂ sense of a national culture, probably because of the wayÂ weâre trying to connect with one other virtually,â heÂ explains.
However, Antonipillai emphasizes that theseÂ conversations must be honest and authentic in order toÂ be effective. Dean says that leaders should continuouslyÂ do mental checks to make sure that they are activelyÂ listening, giving the employee ample opportunity toÂ speak, and responding without judgment or internal bias.Â Otherwise, leaders may unintentionally design solutionsÂ that are inappropriate or ineffective at addressing theÂ employeesâ needs.
For example, at press time, Vargas Townsend was helpingÂ her employees in Texas cope with record-setting freezingÂ temperatures and widespread power outages. Her teamâsÂ initial solution was to book hotel rooms for employeesÂ so they could have power, but after receiving employeeÂ feedback, they understood this was not the right routeÂ to take. Employees did not want to leave their housesÂ because driving was a safety hazard and they needed toÂ make sure their pipes wouldnât freeze.
âWe might have caused our employees undue harm orÂ stress by coming up with a solution, but when youâreÂ in a crisis, you have a tendency to just come up with anÂ answer,â she explains. âI think one of the things thatâsÂ helpful is to stop and ask lots of questions and then toÂ really listen. It takes vulnerability to say, âI donât have theÂ answer, why donât you tell me what youâre going throughÂ and tell me how I can help?â So, I think thatâs the bestÂ practice: stop and be curious.â
Dean offers another example: A coaching client of hisÂ was being considered for an exciting assignment in Paris.Â Without asking her, a company leader assumed sheÂ would not be interested because she had a husband andÂ kids who would also need to relocate. Ultimately, theÂ opportunity was given to somebody else.
âOne could argue that the gentleman was thinkingÂ about her empathetically, but he really wasnât becauseÂ he didnât care enough to involve her in that discussion,âÂ Dean explains. âInstead of going through the emotionalÂ conversation with her, which would involve empathy, heÂ took the ego path and decided to make the decision forÂ her.â
Supporting Employee Goals
An empathetic approach to leadership requiresÂ supporting employees in reaching their personal andÂ professional goals and fulfilling their inner purpose.Â This requires first understanding employeesâ underlyingÂ motivations and then developing a clear plan to alignÂ those goals with the broader objectives of the company.
âOne of the responsibilities of leadership is to define theÂ long-term vision of the organization and to establishÂ more short-term goals for employees in order toÂ transform those plans into reality,â says Lajoie. âThatâsÂ where there should be more focusâspend more timeÂ learning about the needs and inner purpose of theÂ employees and then really set the tone in the approachÂ taken by the employees to achieve the organizationalÂ goals.â
Once leaders understand the motivations that areÂ driving their employees, they can set clear expectationsÂ and guidelines and check in frequently to see howÂ employees are progressing on those goals. MariusÂ Ronnov, CEO of Cubert, a company creating care brandsÂ that support health and happiness, says that leaders atÂ his organization speak with their teams every quarter toÂ understand what they are trying to accomplish for theÂ business and how their motivations are evolving.
âSometimes, that means that people tell me that theyâreÂ planning a family or theyâre saving up for a house or thatÂ theyâre working really hard because theyâre motivatedÂ about a certain part of the business,â he explains.Â âIndividual contributors have an open rapport whereÂ they can lay their cards on the table with their seniorÂ manager, and we can help them plan towards where theyÂ want to be in their life and in the business. And thatâsÂ really importantâthis is a very open, candid rapportÂ where the direct manager suddenly becomes a mentor orÂ a confidant in the individual contributorâs development.Â Itâs at the core of what it means to be empathetic.â
Based on these conversations, managers set specificÂ alignment opportunities for their team members.Â Objectives and key results are discussed quarterly andÂ in weekly one-on-one check ins, giving leaders anÂ opportunity to frequently connect with team membersÂ on goals and ensuring better organizational alignment.
In turn, Ronnov says that he is also very open aboutÂ his own priorities and development goals as a businessÂ leader. âItâs a humbling experience because employeesÂ align to my goals very often once they understandÂ why my priorities are what they are. Getting into aÂ conversation about the motivations behind prioritiesÂ and using that as a tool almost every time you connect isÂ really important.â
Remaining candid and transparent about businessÂ performanceâgood or badâis another componentÂ of empathetic leadership that should not be ignored.Â Offering visibility into key performance indicators andÂ being honest about the failures of the business givesÂ employees a sense of shared responsibility for businessÂ success and safety in making mistakes.
Cubert does this by leading weekly all-hands meetingsÂ to share updates and discuss learnings. These meetingsÂ follow the same structure every week, communicatingÂ a range of metrics to help employees build up theirÂ business acumen while digging into the companyâsÂ quarterly learnings.
âWe try to break it down into why we think we failedÂ or succeeded, and then we invite a couple of individualÂ contributors to give us their assessment because theyÂ were in the field creating some of these resultsâgoodÂ or badâand they articulate some of the things that theyÂ learned as well,â says Ronnov. âThis gives employeesÂ as much information and insight into the businessÂ as we possibly can, and in return, we get trust andÂ responsibility.â
This is something that Doodle is attempting to implementÂ as well. According to Lajoie, the company has organizedÂ weekly talks between product teams to discuss failuresÂ and learn from mistakes together. This reduces productÂ silos, creates a safe space for learning, and improvesÂ connection across the organization.
By being radically honest with the workforce aboutÂ company performance, Ronnov says that he can feel safeÂ trusting that his employees will make good decisionsÂ based on what is best for the business and theirÂ understanding of its overall objectives.
âTrust truly comes from a place of giving team membersÂ the reigns and the resources to show what they canÂ do,â he explains. âThat is really something weâreÂ emphasizingâgiving employees the ability to makeÂ choices for the business and for themselves within specificÂ guardrails and visibility into our business.â
Creating Opportunities for Connection
While sharing goals, business successes, and even failuresÂ undoubtably produces cohesion across teams, leadersÂ should also make sure that they create opportunities forÂ employees to connect on a personal level.
âIt was 2017 when I saw the first study that peopleÂ are really lonely at work and that the more stress andÂ pressure youâre under, the lonelier you feel,â says VargasÂ Townsend. âI think really finding ways to build deep,Â personal, and authentic connections between as manyÂ people as you can builds empathy.â
This is especially true in the remote or hybridÂ environment. Vela says that managers will need toÂ become more creative in their approachesâand soÂ far, they have been. From virtual happy hours toÂ cooking classes, organizations are innovating to createÂ opportunities for team members to connect, bond overÂ an activity, and engage with each other without fear ofÂ ramification.
âSome of Doodleâs practices in connecting withÂ employees include scheduling one on ones, especiallyÂ with our leadership team or their mentors or even cross-functionallyÂ between employees,â shares Lajoie. âWeÂ host virtual retreats, special happy hours, or even teamÂ winsâif we just successfully launched a product, weâllÂ definitely have a happy hour and either share a meal or aÂ drink and have a virtual chat.â
Antonipillai says that affinity groups can be a great placeÂ to hold these conversations in a small group settingÂ that is already unified under a race or ethnicity, similarÂ background, or common interest. âIt can be in a varietyÂ of different ways, but those small common interestÂ groups seem to work better than, for example, a bigÂ social event or company happy hour. A more focused,Â small group seems to foster that sense of community andÂ empathy,â she explains.
Recognition can also be leveraged to as a tool to promoteÂ greater social connection and gratitude betweenÂ employees. This is particularly important at Cubert,Â where Ronnov says that at the end of weekly all-handsÂ meetings, each team member is asked to speak about oneÂ thing that theyâre grateful for and one great thing thatÂ a team member did that week. While this can sometimesÂ feel intimidating in front of a big group, he says thatÂ it forces people to get comfortable communicatingÂ gratitude and treating their team members as humanÂ beings.
âThis is a trick I use to demonstrate empathy,â says Vela.Â âI donât wait to ask how somebody is doing until I needÂ something from them. Every day, I block out at least 20Â to 30 minutes of my day to just send a random note toÂ somebody in my sphereâan employee, a colleague, aÂ client. That is an incredible best practice because it showsÂ that you care, that youâre thinking of them, and that itâsÂ not just when you need them.â
The disruption of the past year has forced businessÂ leaders to rethink the paradigm of the employer-employeeÂ relationship for the better. As companies andÂ employees faced unprecedented obstacles, they haveÂ been forced to become more empathetic in their wordsÂ and actions, creating a more inclusive, human workplaceÂ that is here to stay.
âI think it will continue to be a priority going forwardÂ because in some ways, this has been somewhat eyeÂ opening for senior leadership in the sense that they nowÂ have a deeper understanding of what their employeesâÂ human struggles are on a day-to-day basis. Iâm notÂ sure once youâve seen that, you can unsee it,â saysÂ Antonipillai.