The Rise of the Empathetic Leader
Many of us have worked in hierarchical organisations. You know, the sort where senior management sets financial targets, then divvy up tasks and budgets accordingly; the sort that refers to people as ‘resources’.
The effectiveness of this masculine leadership structure is not in dispute – it has undoubtedly led to the success of most of the world’s biggest companies. However, a new type of empathetic leader is emerging in a labour market that’s switched from brawn to brains. As the world grapples with climate change, automation, and disruption, we’ve learned that diverse workforces can solve pressing challenges more innovatively. And guess what diverse employees need? Empathetic leaders.
Empathetic leaders genuinely believe that people are their biggest asset – from employees and customers to a country’s population. They believe their role isn’t to be ‘in charge’ but to be responsible for those in their charge – to create an environment that inspires and enables people to perform at their best.
Rather than enjoying the power of being the boss, empathetic leaders focus on being great servants. Where a traditional top-down leader would convey their needs and expect employees to deliver on them, empathetic leaders seek buy-in and then look to supply what their people need to do their best work. Fewer KPIs and micro-management, more support and psychological safety. When someone underperforms? Empathetic leaders put effort into understanding why, then adapt around the health issue, childcare chaos, or other stressors – recognising that we can’t always operate at 100%.
Sound touchy-feely? Here are the cold, hard stats: highly empathetic senior leaders who care for an employee’s life circumstances double employee engagement. By creating a safe space for people to make mistakes, collaborate, and ask for help, they also increase the levels of innovation – sixfold.
The disconnect between leaders and people
The post-pandemic world has highlighted a gap between leaders’ perceptions of their roles and what their people need from them. A 2022 BusinessSolver study found that while almost three-quarters of employees were more motivated under empathetic leadership, roughly the same number of CEOs worried that showing empathy would cost them respect.
Fortunately, the post-pandemic world has also provided some real-world examples that should alleviate that worry:
When it comes to flexibility, employees won’t bend
Virtually every respondent in BusinessSolver’s study agreed that offering flexible hours demonstrates empathy. As the world opened up and organisations started to enact their ‘return-to-work’ policies, many miscalculated employee expectations (and their desire to hit rewind).
Having adapted to a new way of working, people expected their employer to protect this ‘new normal’. Fifty percent of organisations failed to meet this expectation, and this widespread lack of empathy was a key contributor to The Great Resignation. Conservative estimates place the cost of replacing an employee at up to twice their annual salary, so when competent women head for the exit, it costs a pretty penny.
Layoffs come at a cost
The decision to reduce headcount is a complex and sometimes necessary one. While organisations can mitigate negative impacts by treating employees with empathy, those that don’t send a loud and clear message, ‘we care more about our bottom line than you’.
Aside from the potentially dangerous consequences for those who lose their jobs, poorly executed layoffs often don’t achieve the desired financial results. Recent tech layoffs (more on this below!) provide numerous case studies of the consequences of putting knee-jerk reactions before people.
If you must make tough decisions in 2023, consider severance packages, accelerated share vesting schedules, and career coaching to help soften the blow. Comply with laws, act with integrity and take a page from Jacinda’s book: be kind.
Empathy is a trainable muscle
While empathy is an innate human trait – it’s why babies cry reflexively in response to other crying babies – psychiatrists attribute only about 10% to genetics. Leading with empathy requires practice, a challenge that a ‘boorish’ Steve Jobs accepted after being fired from Apple in the 1980s. And, when research consistently shows that the best leaders refuse to sacrifice compassion when seeking performance, there’s no better time to brush up on our ability to “do hard things in a human way.”
30 second action:
One of the easiest and most effective ways for leaders to cultivate empathy is to have regular agenda-less one-on-ones. In the next 30 seconds, book a catch-up, and turn up with the question: “How are *you* doing?”.