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When COVID is Finally Gone, Whether CEOs Led With Empathy Will Speak Volumes

When COVID is Finally Gone, Whether CEOs Led With Empathy Will Speak Volumes
Posted on Friday, January 22, 2021 by Jon Shanahan

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a call for leaders to practice empathy.

So, understanding what empathy means to employees can help CEOs, like me, do their jobs more effectively.

The need for empathy is great and the stakes are high, especially in challenging times when people may require more support and understanding to keep them engaged and productive. As a leader, if I’m not keyed into empathy, I run the risk of missing the opportunity to foster a positive environment today and to lay the groundwork with my workforce—and potentially other stakeholders and customers—necessary for the next normal. It’s time to lean in as a lack of organizational empathy during a public health crisis may send employees looking for another position at the first possible moment.

That’s because employees want to work for empathetic organizations. Based on our findings in the 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study, 92% of employees say they are more likely to stay with an employer that empathized with their needs—and 80% are willing to jump ship for more empathy.

If CEOs don’t appreciate the importance their workforce places on this foundational value, it’s that much harder for them to effectively lead with empathy in these difficult times.

What impact do employees believe empathy has on the workplace? And, how does this differ from what CEOs believe?

In addition to their desire to work for an employer that supports their needs, employees feel strongly that empathy is a contributing factor to organizational success. However, the CEOs we polled are less convinced.

  • 70% of employees think empathy is behind lower turnover rates; only 40% of CEOs feel the same.
  • 78% of employees credit empathy for increased motivation, compared to 53% of CEOs.
  • 76% of employees believe an organization’s empathy drives productivity; only 52% of CEOs agree.

In addition to a disconnect between how leaders and employees view workplace empathy, CEOs aren’t always connecting the dots around their own beliefs.

  • While 82% of CEOs believe an organization’s financial performance is tied to empathy, just over 50% think empathy factors into productivity and motivation.

When CEOs aren’t on the same page as their employees, it’s not possible to be truly empathetic.

Global organizational consultancy Korn Ferry suggests that to demonstrate this workplace value in the midst of a pandemic CEOs need to do these four things.

  • Acknowledge others’ stress in this situation.
  • Know that people are also struggling with personal and family issues beneath the business issues.
  • Show you care about them versus the enterprise only.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat.

The last bullet reinforces the notion that empathy isn’t a once-and-done proposition, it’s an ongoing way of thinking and behaving that helps build trust, a vital component of effective leadership.

And I can attest to the fact that it is not always so simple. While natural for some people, for others empathy is a reach. Even before the onset of COVID-19, Businessolver’s research found that four out of 10 CEOs find it challenging to demonstrate empathy in their working lives.

We also found that 80% of CEOs believe empathy can be learned, a number that has been increasing steadily for the past three years, from 59% in 2017.

But leaders can also be learners, and these challenging times demand an increased focus on leading with empathy. Those who fail to rise to the occasion or don’t recognize the importance of empathy may well be leading the organizations who suffer most from the impact of COVID-19 in the long term.