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New Research Shows Why Business Leaders Struggle With Workplace Empathy

Plus: steps we can all take to cultivate more compassion and kindness at work.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Studies show that the expression of empathy has far-reaching effects in our personal and professional lives. It’s increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership effectiveness tool in today’s global market. In the workplace, CEOs and team leaders never know the hidden emotional burdens employees or peers carry on a daily basis. But when they learn to hold judgment at arms length and try to walk in employees’ shoes, it can boost workplace morale, team performance and productivity.

But new research shows that CEOs and team leaders have difficulty with empathy. A study conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Learn to Live, for example, found that 62% of American workers worry their bosses would judge them for taking mental health days. And a Paychex survey of 1,000 American employees revealed low team morale more than doubled during the pandemic, over half said team leaders do not acknowledge stress or work burnout and only 44% of managers encourage or allow venting or talking about work frustrations, despite the fact that one in three employees said this strategy was successful in bringing teams together.

How Does Empathy Work?

It’s simple science. Empathy neutralizes negativity. When you’re frustrated, angry or dissatisfied with another employee, the ability to temporarily take that person’s perspective and see his or her point of view is a powerful tool. It softens negative emotions, and both you and your colleague respond more positively, clearing the way for an equitable solution to the problem.

Empathy isn’t endorsing poor job performance or even agreeing with the person in question. It’s simply suspending temporarily your point of view and walking in that person’s shoes for a brief time. It takes you out of gridlock from your own perspective and lets you see a situation from a colleague’s vantage point without agreement. And it helps you respond to job issues with less judgment and animosity and more maturity, objectivity, fairness and equability.

Why Empathy Is Such A Hard Sell

The power of one small word, Empathy, is a heavy lift. Yet, President and CEO of Businessolver, Jon Shanahan, stresses the importance of workplace empathy. “After years of decline, workplace empathy has improved—alongside overall attentiveness to issues long considered to be among the most difficult to discuss in the workplace, including our lives outside of work, mental health and race,” he said. “However, despite broader gains, significant gaps in understanding remain between leaders and different groups of employees.”

According to Businessolver’s sixth annual State of Workplace Empathy study, workplace empathy improved over the past year but concerning gaps still exist. Results showed 68% of CEOs admitted they fear they will be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace—a 31 point increase over 202o. Both HR professionals and CEOs said they personally struggle with demonstrating empathy, and seven in 10 said it’s hard to consistently show empathy in their working life—a 29 point increase from 2020.

On the upside, the findings paint a different picture of organizations that effectively rose to the occasion. Employee empathy ratings of their companies and CEOs rebounded in 2021: 72% of employees rated their organizations as empathetic—four percentage points higher than the prior year; 72% also said their CEOs were empathetic—a full nine percentage points higher. Still, only a quarter of employees said empathy in their organizations is sufficient. And while CEOs said they value empathy, 22% were less likely to say empathy in their organizations is sufficient and fail to see how they can improve. Clearly, more work still needs to be done as business leaders struggle to reconcile empathy gaps with employees. The Businessolver report listed 5 ways to navigate the path toward a more empathetic future:

  1. Embrace a new outlook for empathy.
  2. Listen to what employees are saying about empathetic actions and adopt new benefits accordingly.
  3. Prioritize inclusion everywhere.
  4. Create a culture of open, stigma-free dialogue around mental health.
  5. Champion empathy through leaders’ platforms, so CEOs are on the same page with employees in understanding the reasons why empathy matters.

There is no rolling back the clock to the old days when companies ignored the mental health needs of employees. According to Shanahan, Businessolver has taken three steps to create a more empathetic workplace for their own employees: (1) They committed to work-from-home flexibility for all employees indefinitely, (2) started offering unlimited vacation and (3) conducted an internal diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) assessment. “As a leader, I know this road has not been easy and the future is still uncertain,” Shanahan said. “However, I am confident that no matter what twists in the road we meet, empathy can propel us safely around the curves.”

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