Do Leaders Have an Empathy Problem?

A study suggests that workplaces where employees don’t feel a connection are at risk of higher turnover. Listening is a good start, but actions matter too.

A boss at a newspaper where I once worked had a routine response whenever a particular freelancer was displeased about something: “He wants to be loved.” That was a deliberate overstatement, but in service of a fair point: Employees may not speak out to our bosses because they need to be loved, but they do want to be heard and understood on a level that runs deeper than mere productivity. If they don’t feel they’re heard, they’ll move on. As the old saw has it, people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.

There’s data to support that idea. According to Businesssolver’s 2018 “State of Workplace Empathy” report, a workplace’s capacity for empathy—defined as “the ability to understand and experience the feelings of another”—plays a critical role in an employee’s engagement with their work. Ninety-six percent of respondents (1,000 employees, plus smaller groups of CEOs and HR professionals) say empathy is important; 90 percent say they’re more likely to stay with an employer that demonstrates empathy; and 80 percent say they’re willing to work longer hours for such an employer.

Of course, polling people about whether they like being empathized with is a little like polling them about whether they like rainbows, or breathing. Positive feedback is such an essential part of our workplace life that nobody is going to say they stand against it. But the study reveals a few points that complicate leaders’ relationship with empathy, its impact, and our misunderstandings about it.

71 percent of men view organizations in general as empathetic, but only 33 percent of women say so.

For one thing, perceptions of empathy are gendered. “Men are 15 percent more likely than women to agree that their organization is empathetic,” according to the report. Moreover, while 71 percent of men view organizations in general as empathetic, only 33 percent of women say so.

There’s also a strong disconnect between employees and leaders over whether personalized technology can help improve workplace empathy: 70 percent of CEOs believe it can, but only 50 percent of employees do.

Lastly, CEOs in general are feeling a bit at sea about what to do about all this: Forty-five percent of them say they “had difficulty demonstrating empathy in their day-to-day working life.”

I sympathize with the CEO’s struggle here—while we can all agree what empathy means in general, we don’t necessarily agree about how best to demonstrate it. To go back to the gender split: According to the study, men emphasize “acknowledgment of personal accomplishments” and “recognizing an employee’s important personal milestones,” while women tend to favor “collaborative behaviors, such as making time to talk one-on-one about challenges and problems at work.” One-size-fits-all approaches don’t work here.

So what to do? The survey’s sponsor recommends training on empathy for CEOs and employees, of course, which can’t hurt—unless it winds up feeling like a perfunctory retreat where everybody pays lip service to the virtues of communication without actually, well, communicating. If it’s true, as the study argues, that empathy plays a key role in keeping employees in their jobs, then actions that reflect due consideration of its importance are what matter. Building a diverse set of leaders, especially in the C-suite, is one path toward that, according to the study. “Eighty-one percent of CEOs believe that having more women in leadership positions would increase an organization’s empathy, with strong majorities of employees and HR professionals agreeing,” says the report.

But ultimately, the answers will come down to a leader’s ability to listen to workers, be it in person or in groups, and develop concrete responses to the particular issues they raise. That may be an improved sexual harassment policy, or more opportunities for flexible work schedules or for family and medical leave. It’s likely not another potted team-building exercise. “Despite commonly held beliefs about happy hours and team retreats, there is markedly less interest in initiating more team-bonding activities to exhibit empathy,” according to the report. You can’t fix this with trust falls. But the answer may be as simple as asking people what they feel needs fixing.

What does your organization to do to hear out and respond to employee concerns? Share your experiences in the comments.

(FangXiaNuo/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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