Why “Empathetic Leaders” Sometimes Aren’t

Empathy is a virtue in the C-suite. But listening also means being prepared to act on what you've heard.

Leaders are routinely called upon to be more empathetic, especially these days. But what do we mean by empathy in the workplace, exactly?

It’s a little more nuanced than it’s often depicted. But before getting into that, it’s worth showing why the matter is so urgent. The Empathy in Business Survey released last month by Ernst & Young (EY) Consulting delivers a handful of striking data points. More than half of the sample of full- and part-time American workers (54 percent) left a job because “their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work.” Moreover, 79 percent of respondents said that empathetic leadership played an important role in reducing turnover, and 88 percent say it increases loyalty.

If all your listening sessions pivot to discussions about job performance, what, exactly, is being listened to?

All of which prompted EY executive Steve Payne to say in a statement that the survey shows that “empathy is not only a nice-to-have, but the glue and accelerant for business transformation.”

But again—what does “empathetic leadership” look like? The EY survey demonstrates less of a consensus on this point. Respondents spoke about qualities like fairness, openness, and handling difficult conversations, but no one quality was important to a majority of respondents. Moreover, those qualities are very much open to interpretation. An employee on the winning end of a promotion may be eager to talk about a leader’s “fairness,” but the decision may not seem so fair to others. Difficult conversations, almost by definition, are divisive; it’s unlikely that everybody will be heard in equal measure, despite a leader’s best efforts.

No question, CEOs see the importance in putting in that best effort, in the face of labor shortages amid the Great Resignation. A recent roundup of CEO comments at Inc. about how to lead best is revealing in how much communication and listening are privileged. LogMeIn CEO Bill Wagner’s comments are typical of the sentiment: “I host listening sessions and regularly survey employees to check in with their remote-centric experience, mental health, and how we are living our values… . We have evolved our culture to focus on what means the most to our employees, both in and out of work.”

This is good, as far as it goes. But listening is one thing, and what’s done with what you heard is another. A smart, critical piece in Time magazine from July shed some light on the idea that workplace empathy is too often used as just another means to get employees into compliance, creating an environment where organizations “implore workers to be honest and vulnerable about their needs, then implicitly or explicitly punish them for it.” Is it helpful to encourage employees to speak out about mental health, the article suggests, if the company health plan then fails to provide the kind of services employees seek? And if all those ballyhooed listening sessions have a funny way of pivoting to discussions about improving job performance, what, exactly, is being listened to?

Association offices have day-to-day work to do, and they likely also have internal challenges to address, especially these days. But being an empathetic leader requires keeping both of those issues in balance. The Time story points to the need to think beyond a wellness initiative or a one-off DEI seminar when it comes to empathy; rather, workplaces can strive toward eroding monoculture, training up managers to do their job well, and that gives more flexibility to workers.

It’s a good thing that leaders talk up empathy more these days—culturally, we’re often in short supply of it. But before doing that talking, it’s important to know going into your listening session what you’re listening for—and how you intend to act on what you’ve heard.

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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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