A Blog by Jonathan Low


Nov 18, 2020

Why So Many Organizations Now Want Empathetic Leadership

The last eight months have not been easy. And though new vaccines promise eventual relief, there is emphasis on the word 'eventual.'

The attraction of empathetic leaderships stems not just from the pandemic, but from the growing importance of human capital - previously known as employees - and their ability to work miracles with the technology they use. Investors and successful organizations recognize that for a remote or physically present workforce worried about health and the economy, leadership empathy may help optimize engagement and productivity. JL

Sam Walker reports in the Wall Street Journal:

CEOs think their organizations are more empathetic than their employees do. Studies show people in business (are) less empathetic than the general public, and less inclined to believe empathy is a valuable leadership trait. 20% of companies have added empathy training to their management development programs. Studies have linked it to better work climates, higher retention rates, and higher profits. If managers are supportive, people are happier and more productive. (But) empathetic leaders are more effective in the early stages of a crisis.

Empathy has arrived in a big way, and it’s time to deal with it.

The prevailing view is that empathy is a good thing for humans to possess: It's a positive and unifying social force for good. But the people who study it are increasingly less convinced. What’s even murkier is the relationship between empathy and leadership.

Studies have linked highly empathetic leaders to popularity and the ability to build better working relationships. But another pile of data suggests they can be indecisive and ineffectual in making tough decisions.

None of that seems to be registering, however. And not just in politics. One recent survey found that 20% of companies have added empathy training to their management development programs.

Many people still don’t understand what empathy means: They mistake it for compassion or sympathy. Empathy is about understanding and sharing the emotions of others, or “getting” where they’re coming from. Compassion is when we have powerful feelings of warmth or concern for somebody who is suffering. Compassion can be pleasurable. Empathy is hard work.

If the President-elect is serious about putting empathy first, he’d better rest up. Experts say stepping out of yourself and exploring other perspectives can make leaders vulnerable to burnout.

Another challenge, in times of crisis, is that leaders also need to display strength. If you’ve positioned yourself as an empathetic leader, it’s a lot more difficult to make unpopular decisions, even if they’re objectively the right ones.

The biggest obstacle may be this: Surveys have found that people are actually becoming less empathetic. When we do extend empathy to strangers, we’re more inclined to do so if they look like us, think like us, follow us on Twitter, or support the same soccer team. Some researchers believe empathy isn’t what unites us, it’s what makes us bond to one warring tribe or the other.

Thankfully, there’s a lot of research on empathy, and more of it is focused on business.

One study, published in January, looked at the leaders of companies that had gone through a crisis, and what role empathy played in the outcome. The authors concluded that a chief executive’s response to a crisis is “fundamentally” shaped by empathy, but that empathy is both a blessing and a curse.

On the positive side, the empathetic CEOs were generally more attuned to the concerns of their people and better at collecting the information they needed to diagnose the problem. They were better at comforting others, avoiding blame and repairing the team’s ability to work together. They were more adept at convincing outsiders that the company cares.

On the other hand, they were often so empathetic to their people that they struggled to assign blame. They worried more about repairing internal relationships than fixing the problems that caused the crisis, and were sometimes biased in favor of decisions that would relieve anxiety and pressure.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Robert Benmosche, the former CEO of insurer AIG, showed how empathetic leadership can backfire. Despite a massive government bailout, he expressed support for the $450 million in bonuses that had previously been awarded to AIG workers in the unit responsible for losses.

He explained that his people were “scared” and had probably “lived beyond their means.”

He later apologized.

Overall, the researchers believe that empathetic leaders are usually more effective in the early stages of a crisis, when relationships matter and finger-pointing doesn’t help. Over time, however, the magic wears off. They tend to focus on the wrong things and struggle with hard choices.

To reap the benefits of empathy without falling into its traps, the research points to a few practical strategies.

Every Bit Helps

Studies have consistently shown that people in business tend to be slightly less empathetic than the general public, and less inclined to believe that empathy is a valuable leadership trait.

CEOs also have a tendency to think their organizations are more empathetic than their employees do.

Given all that, a little empathy is likely to pay off. Studies have linked it to better work climates, higher retention rates, and in some extreme cases, higher profits.

Empathy Can Be Delegated

A recent Gallup study looked at the different factors that drive employee engagement in the workplace. It found that the biggest single factor, by far, was the quality of the manager. If managers were supportive, their people were happier and more productive. The study also found that a person’s direct manager has far more influence, in terms of engagement, than the CEO.

This suggests that if you have enough empathetic leaders below you, your level of empathy becomes less important.

Listen to Everybody

There’s a growing pile of evidence that people who build and maintain effective relationships at work make the most successful leaders. In fact, this skill may outrank all others.

Building relationships doesn’t require unusual empathy, but it does benefit from one of empathy’s sharpest tools: listening.

On high-performing teams, leaders tend to be democratic with their attention. They approach everybody on their teams and don’t play favorites. They engage others with a high level of energy and make an effort to listen as much as they talk.

Even if people don’t think you’re empathetic, they will appreciate the fact that you heard them out, even if you rule against them.

Criticize Carefully

Leaders often need to deliver criticism, but there’s a relatively empathetic way to do this. The trick is to aim your criticism at a person’s behavior without attacking their character.

People expect leaders to hold them to standards, but nobody likes to be condemned.

A classic example of “bad” criticism came during the last Presidential election, when Hillary Clinton described some of Mr. Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” This blanket denunciation fueled the perception that she lacked empathy.

Be Stoical

Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist who studies empathy, describes it as a “moral train wreck” that fuels our tribal impulses and makes the world a worse place. He argues that people make better policy decisions by setting empathy aside.

If empathy doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s worth considering Dr. Bloom’s suggested approach: “rational compassion.” Leaders, he says, should be thoughtful about the feelings of others, but skeptical of indulging them.

To master this tactic, leaders shouldn’t worry about showing they care or projecting strength. They should engage genuinely with both sides and deliver the verdict with a poker face.

There’s a price for doing this. It’s loneliness. It requires maintaining some emotional distance from your team.

Don’t Get Discouraged

Empathy’s benefits are often invisible, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Researchers have found that in a good work environment, employees are often happier with the state of things than the boss is.

In the final analysis, I don’t think empathy would make a very good president. It’s a useful tool to hang on the pegboard, but it’s not a comprehensive leadership strategy.


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