Feeling supported and heard at work can make a big difference in employees’ lives.
Yet, a recent survey indicates there’s a vast gulf between the empathy and support craved by employees and what those workplaces are actually providing.
And I have on occasion had the same impression.
For example, after a training I did on the empathetic response to trauma on the job, I received a phone call. The caller thanked me for the training, then hesitated, before opening up about her experience.
“So, my boss is… less good at this stuff. In fact, he’s pretty awful. He thinks he’s empathetic. But we recently had a really traumatic experience in the office that affected everyone, and when I told him I thought he should address it, he said, ‘I don’t see how that’s my role.’ He wouldn’t even send an email! He thinks it’s personal stuff and he shouldn’t get involved. But meanwhile, I’m hearing about how everyone is falling apart. How do I get him to address the human side of things?”
The caller is not alone in being frustrated by a supervisor’s lack of empathy.
In late 2020, McKinsey conducted two national surveys, one of full-time employees and the other of people who make benefits decisions.
They found that while 71% of employers with frontline workers believed they were supporting employee mental health well or very well, only 27% of employees agreed.
Similarly, Businessolver’s 2020 State of the Workplace Empathy Report found that 97% of CEOs say all levels of their organization are empathetic to employees’ mental health, but only 69% of employees agree.
This indicates that there may be a large disparity between the support that leaders think they’re providing and what those in the organization are actually experiencing.
So how do we bring leadership to understand the importance of empathy, and how to provide it? Here are a few ideas.
Engage your own empathy
First, try to understand the leader’s experience. It’s good to keep in mind and recognize that emotional intelligence levels vary.
For some people, empathy is easy to access and manage. For others, it’s not.
Some leaders are in management not because of their people skills, but because, for instance, they’re really great researchers or analysts. They may have fumbled personal conversations before and are reluctant to try again.
In addition, many believe (wrongly) that empathy is weak and that to be a strong leader, they need to be tough.
According to the Workplace Empathy Report, 68% of CEOs fear that showing empathy in the workplace will make people respect them less, and 7 in 10 say that consistently showing empathy in their working life is hard for them.
If you approach the person with frustration at their lack of skill and experience, it will likely cause them to shy away rather than try. Instead, approach with care and a desire to help someone acquire a new skill.
Show them the statistics
If you want a leader to prioritize empathy at work, show them the statistics. They need the business case first. It’s not hard to make.
Here are a few statistics that may help:
- A 2016 survey of 15,000 managers — from frontline to C suite — found that the skill most associated with positive outcomes was empathy. The same survey found that just 40% of leaders were strong or even just proficient at empathy.
- According to the Businesssolver’s 2020 report, 80% of employees would be willing to leave their job if they found a more empathetic employer, and 57% would take a pay cut to do so.
- Plus, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, organizations where employees trust their management have:
Teach them how to do it
People who have less emotional intelligence may not be as aware of what others are doing to support those around them.
It may be necessary to make it clear to them. Try to articulate what you’re doing, or what you see others do, that demonstrates empathy.
For instance, imagine that you’ve been helping a co-worker who wishes that your supervisor were more supportive. With their permission, you could say something to the supervisor like, “I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Jill has been having a hard time lately. I’ve called her twice this week and just asked, ‘how’s everything going?’ She seemed glad to hear that I cared.”
You could also point out empathetic leadership in others, such as: “Lee does a great job leading those staff meetings. I like that he always starts with an easy check-in question, and pauses a few times as he’s speaking to give others a chance to talk.”
You can also be explicit and ask for what you think is needed.
For instance, you might say, “Our team was incredibly slammed last month and we really stepped up, but we’re completely fried now. Think you could reward us with a day off? I know it would make a difference in everyone’s mood and productivity.”
Normalize good behavior
Positive reinforcement is powerful — for all of us. We sometimes forget that leaders need it, too.
If you catch your manager doing well, consider praising them for it. “I’m so glad you mentioned the Employee Assistance Program. They don’t get used enough.”
You might also consider sending an email after a town hall and tell them what their words meant to you.
In particular, look for opportunities to shift the leader’s perspective of who they are. It’s a good idea to convey the message that they’re an empathetic leader, and that empathy is an important priority in the workplace, and they’re really showing how it’s done.
Some examples of what that may look like include:
- “Thanks so much for leading on these issues.”
- “You’re really showing the importance of empathy in our industry.”
Changing the culture of a workplace isn’t easy, and getting the leadership on board is important.
Understanding your leaders’ perspective, providing them with the information they need, helping them obtain the skills, and giving positive feedback can help.
That caller who reached out about her boss? She spoke with him about the importance of empathy and gave him a copy of my book. A month later, I got an excited phone call from her. He’d read the book and came to her to share his perspectives on why empathy at work mattered.
“We should do a training for everyone,” he said. “This stuff is really important.”
Katharine Manning is the president of Blackbird, which provides training and consultation on responding to trauma and victimization at work, and the author of “The Empathetic Workplace: Five Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job.” She has been an advocate, counselor, and legal advisor for victims for more than 25 years, including 15 years at the Justice Department where she advised on cases like Madoff, Charlottesville, and the Boston Marathon bombing.