Learning & Development

CEOs Need Another Kind of Workout: Building Their Empathy Muscle

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an era of more worker flexibility and more understanding shown to them by some employers. But as society returned to near normal, the empathetic trend waned. Many employees were commanded to come back to the office against their wishes, and millions joined the Great Resignation.

Research shows some CEOs and team leaders struggle with showing empathy to employees, even though studies prove it to be a key driver of business success, and they neglect empathy for numerous reasons. A study conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Learn to Live found that 62% of American workers worry they would be judged by their bosses for taking mental health days. And in a survey by Paychex, over half of the employees polled said team leaders don’t acknowledge stress or burnout, with only 44% of managers encouraging honest discussions about work frustrations.

It’s clear many employees want empathy from their leaders. A recent survey of employees by Ernst & Young found empathetic leadership boosts morale, inspires positive change within the workplace, fosters mutual respect between employees and leaders, increases productivity among employees, and reduces employee turnover.

If you’re a leader lacking empathy, it’s time to build that muscle.

Not an Empty Word

Empathy is crucial in leadership at all levels because it enables leaders to understand and relate to their team members, foster an environment of trust and open communication, and increase a sense of worth for the work culture.

I used to believe that in business, using empathy could weaken an individual’s or a company’s ability to meet intended goals. But contrary to what many believe, empathy doesn’t mean always being nice, and it isn’t about hand-holding or making excuses. It’s possible to be empathetic while still making tough decisions, such as firing employees. Exceptional leaders are skilled at balancing empathy and decisiveness.

As you embark on a journey to build your empathy muscle, I encourage you to reflect on what empathy means to you. What has your experience been with empathy, how does empathy make you feel, and what benefits and/or negative effects do you find? Write down your thoughts.

Think about your own values, and identify which ones align with empathy and which ones don’t. Practicing empathy is a way to live out your own values. Once you’ve identified the source of your views on empathy, dig a little deeper and unpack why that person, action, or experience informed you the way it did. Again, write down your thoughts.

As you get more comfortable with the process, start the empathy conversation with others. Share what you’ve come to learn about your own ideas and practices of empathy, and encourage them to share theirs.

From all you know now about empathy, do you believe you deserve to receive it? Do you believe everyone deserves to receive it? I hope the answer is yes because if you believe everyone deserves empathy, you also believe everyone deserves dignity, and that’s where it all must begin.

When you consciously look at your world, your circle of concern, for ways to offer empathy, it’s important to remind yourself that not everyone has what you have. We don’t all have the privilege of the same level of support, health, education, or wealth to meet basic human needs. When you lead with that knowledge, you’ll understand things differently.

The Phases of Empathy Evolution

My personal journey to becoming an empathetic leader occurred in these four phases. Doing the exercise applied to each phase can be helpful in your growth toward becoming an empathetic leader:

  • Curiosity. As a former non-empathetic-style leader, I had questions when finally engaging in the empathetic leadership journey, such as: Why aren’t leaders letting people go who don’t do their job? How do you have the patience to keep giving them another chance? In the curiosity phase, it’s common for people to be defensive; they present all the evidence they have in defense of the unempathetic status quo. In this phase, leaders struggle to acknowledge people’s inherent worth.
    • Exercise: Consider a challenge you’re struggling with and are eager to resolve quickly. Put yourself in the curiosity stage. What questions do you ask? Write them down. Are your questions based in empathy for those involved in the solution, or are they based in indifference?
  • Resistance and reluctance. Here, I agreed that empathy may hold some value but felt it couldn’t get you your desired outcomes.
    • Exercise: Identify one or two empathetic people in your organization, work group, or community group—your circle of concern. Think of a time when they made a suggestion that was based in empathy. Did you consider it a viable option, or were you reluctant and resistant? Why?
  • Cautious investment. During this stage, I could finally start to see empathy’s benefits for me and for the person I offered empathy to. I could even see how empathy could help with accomplishing the outcomes we desired.Maybe there was something to this.
    • Exercise: Think of a time when you observed or participated in a people-over-policy scenario in which outcomes were achieved. Did this motivate you to initiate a review of other policies and ways to put people first? Why or why not?
  • Full investment. I had witnessed the benefits and the joy of offering empathy and receiving empathy. Through this process, I had become a better communicator and collaborator. I realized I could reach my goals without leaving people in my wake.
    • Exercise: Start getting comfortable talking about empathy. Initiate a conversation about empathy in your workplace with one person. Ask them what empathy means to them, and then share your perspective on empathy. Talk about how you both think it may or may not fit into your organization. Remember: Listen for understanding, not for judgment, validation, or accuracy, even if you disagree.

After the long process of building my empathy muscle and seeing the benefits to others and myself, I can confidently tell you, a fellow leader, that you can do the same. I have tested this process on hundreds of coaching clients over the years. My professional practice has strengthened my belief that everyone deserves to receive empathy, everyone can give empathy, and the world is better for it.

Dr. Nicole Price (https://drnicoleprice.com) is the Forbes Books author of Spark The Heart: Engineering Empathy In Your Organization. She’s also the CEO of Lively Paradox, a professional coaching business that focuses on practicing empathy in leadership. Price was originally trained as an engineer, and her technical background enhances her objective approach to solving process problems and helping people focus on solutions. Follow Price on Twitter: @DrNicolePrice.

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