Empathy cushion: It’s what’s missing in the executive suite

A survey of more than 600 employees conducted by consulting company Lee Hecht Harrison recently suggested that 58% of corporate managers fail to show empathy toward employees — to embrace a true understanding of another’s feelings or sentiments. This study underscores Gallup’s 2013 poll showing that only 13% of employees are engaged in their workplace.

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to theorize a direct correlation between the two, or to predict that this mutual disregard may be contributing to unprecedented turnover as the economy improves.

A failure to consider others’ feelings or circumstances is divisive at best, and it’s a serious concern, since staff stability is a predictor of business success. Here are some easy suggestions to improve morale and to develop your empathetic leadership muscle, with the goal of improving the workplace experience for everyone:

How well do you know your direct reports?

You probably have a pretty good handle on how your team members perform their job requirements, but what do you know about them personally? Consider starting a spreadsheet with the names of your employees listed in column one. Add columns for the names of their partners, the names and ages of their children, where they were born, where they were educated, their hobbies, their favorite sports teams, and their favorite places to travel to. Find out the answers during casual conversations at office potlucks, or during your one-on-one meetings. The more questions and answers you add, the more interest you will legitimately take in their lives — and the greater the empathy cushion you will create.

Remember the concept of 'management by walking around'?

If you judge people’s contributions or worth largely through bottom-line reports and how many times they chime in with brilliant ideas at a staff meeting, getting beyond the barriers of your office and the conference room table will give you a third perspective: how the person operates in his or her workspace. What do you notice as you make weekly rounds? What interests do people display in their assigned spaces? Are they able, during a less formal, more spontaneous interaction, to discuss their work or project with a different passion or interest, or share new ideas or perspectives?

Are you faithful about conducting weekly one-on-one meetings?

When things are going well, we managers often don’t see the point of weekly meetings. Why waste time? When things go bad, we bring some employees into our office to put them on a performance plan. Meanwhile, well, everyone knows what they should be doing, right? We’re not micro-managers, after all.

Today, most corporate communication is handled by email or via group meetings. In an individual setting, you have the opportunity to pay attention, physically and mentally, to one person’s thoughts and feelings — that rich interaction that isn’t possible through electronic means — and to learn what people think but often won’t say in group situations. To build empathetic skills, listen carefully and respond encouragingly to the central message. Add to your agenda this closing question: How could I better assist you, as your manager, in doing your job? If the employee has a suggestion, don’t pipe up with a knee-jerk defense of the status quo, but at least consider the suggestion from the employee’s point of view.



Can you make a legitimate commitment to an empathetic workplace?

Your attitude sets the tone. Are you rooted in the belief that it’s the employee’s job to commit to the workplace? Do you harbor a “love it or leave it” attitude? Are you most concerned with your agenda (thanks to your superior big-picture knowledge)? Are you mired by the need to constantly express why your directives or point of view are right? If so, you share a corporate viewpoint with 58% of other managers. But, coincidentally, another study found that 58% of all managers are incompetent and lack the basic skills to lead others.

Funny how those two studies align …

If you recognize the importance of building relationships and accepting others — of growing your firm from the inside by developing your staff as well as your products — you can definitely do so with an open mind and willing heart, one employee at a time.

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