Finding common ground between business objectives and employee wellbeing

Empathy has risen above all others as a key skill for leaders. No matter how challenging the situation or context, a willingness from the C-suite to listen and offer help can promote a happier, more productive workforce. Positive, empathetic leadership not only inspires employees, but it also deepens engagement, speeds up problem-solving, and ramps up performance.

There’s a growing demand for leaders that listen and put themselves in their employees’ shoes. Potential C-suite executives are being compelled to act and react compassionately, as well as rationally, and this is being reflected in recruitment processes.

This is a seismic shift in the way we do business, and empathetic leadership has become a lighthouse for those leading from the front – and for those they lead.

As Christophe Rosset, Managing Partner of Continental Europe, explains, company leaders are embracing this shift and are using executive search experts to find these skills in their potential new colleagues. “Today, when talking about a potential executive placement, we look for and assess their intelligence quotient (IQ), emotional quotient (EQ), adaptability quotient (AQ) and their value quotient (VQ).” So, how can companies develop empathetic leadership that will propel the organisation forward?

Today, when talking about a potential executive placement, we look for and assess their intelligence quotient (IQ), emotional quotient (EQ), adaptability quotient (AQ) and their value quotient (VQ).

-Christophe Rosset, Managing Partner, Continental Europe

 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Empathetic leadership is key to cultivating a healthy company culture and building more productive working relationships. Managers who emanate and generate empathy are more effective leaders, and those who operate with ‘attitude certainty provide a sense of stability, helping to create a psychological safety net for those around them in times of uncertainty.

  • Empathetic leaders feel genuine concern for others and are intrinsically motivated to help them thrive.
  • Empathetic leadership can have an exponential impact on the core development and long-term growth of an organisation. It helps employees feel valued and understood, leading to better employee wellbeing and productivity.
  • In an increasingly digitalised world, a leader’s ability to communicate empathetically and use their emotions to connect with other people is one of their greatest strengths. Deciphering cues and responding with sincerity and compassion – regardless of the platform – are the hallmarks of an empathetic leader.
  • Talking about empathy and listening to employees’ individual and honest concerns are key to fostering an empathetic company culture.

 


EMPATHY AND GROWTH: TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN

Empathetic leadership is key to nurturing a healthy company culture and building more productive working relationships. Managers who emanate and generate empathy are more effective leaders. They become vital assets to organisations.

People are the greatest resource in any organisation. The more they feel cared for, the more they care and, in turn, contribute. Caring about employees and caring about the bottom line are not mutually exclusive – they are two sides of the same coin. Empathetic leaders think with their hearts and their heads.

Nicolas Béchu, Global Sponsor for Page Executive and Executive Board Director, PageGroup agrees. As he explains, “Empathetic leaders help everyone. They develop trust in an organisation and help everyone feel understood. For an organisation to perform well, both individually and collectively, people need a voice. An organisation where people can exist as themselves, where they have influence, where they align with the company purpose is an organisation that allows them to thrive. Leadership makes this possible or not.”

PEOPLE-FIRST LEADERSHIP

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to practising empathy for employees – and least of all with a pandemic in full swing. With many employees working remotely and connecting digitally with colleagues and managers, daily dilemmas like anxiety, insecurity, isolation, demotivation and work-life balance are bubbling to the surface, all exacerbated by lack of physical presence.

Stanford University found leaders who operate with ‘attitude-certainty’ provide a sense of stability that creates a psychological safety net for those around them in times of uncertainty.

Leaders must take the time to get to know and understand their people as individuals and factor in their strengths and weaknesses. This means checking in regularly, matching tasks to team members based on their needs and goals, and spotting signs of burnout or disengagement before they reach a critical point – all while maintaining a positive attitude.

The results are infinitely rewarding for both sides. Stepping into employees’ shoes – even virtually – can be one of the most beneficial, and even fulfilling, things a leader can do. As Béchu says, “It is not empathy overall, it is empathy for individual performance that is powerful.”

It is not empathy overall, it is empathy for individual performance that is powerful.

-Nicolas Béchu, Global Sponsor for Page Executive and Executive Board Director

By working on a one-to-one basis and keeping an open door and mind, leaders can help bridge the gap. In the words of Sheri Hughes, Diversity & Inclusion Director UK, “As leaders, we look at our people and manage that whole person.”

UNDERSTANDING AND ASSESSING EMPATHETIC LEADERSHIP

The impact is palpable for an organisation. Page Executive research reveals that the most empathetic companies outperform those that demonstrate the lowest levels of empathy by 50%. According to Belinda Parmar, CEO of The Empathy Business, the definition of empathy within a business is “the emotional impact that a company has on its people – staff and customers – and also society”.

The positive effects of greater empathy ripple through to every level of a company, including human resources. Savvy executive search experts are doing a full 360 when assessing a client’s recruitment needs and spotting empathetic leaders. Senior leaders are being challenged to show the empathy they seek, immersing themselves in the environment of the client to increase the chances of a better top talent-to-role fit.

One method of assessing the level of empathy in an organisation, or indeed in an executive, is the EMBRACE model, as designed by Parmar. The model takes seven drivers behind empathy – Empowerment, Meaning, Belonging, Reassurance, Authenticity, Collaboration and Ethics – and scores them low, medium or high.

The output helps to judge the level of empathy, set within the definitions above, giving leadership the opportunity to see where they excel and where they have work to do. If applied to recruitment, the same can be said of an executive and how they approached specific past problems.

As Béchu explains, Page Executive are leading from the front in the assessment of a potential leader’s approach to empathy. “We are redefining the way we approach interviews, to focus not only on skills but also on the capacity to show emotional intelligence and, of course, their values. The real values of the leader. We want to find the capacity of that person to show empathy and will use interviews to dig for examples of this. For example, we could ask, how do you as a leader guide your team, and what is your style of leadership? We aim to discover their positioning in terms of leadership, to understand the values they bring.”

Donna Croucher, Partner UK, agrees with Béchu that it is important to assess any potential leader for these skills. As she says, “If you haven’t got that empathetic leadership, if it is not visible and not being practised day to day, it probably means you haven’t got that deeper connection with your employees.”

If you haven’t got that empathetic leadership, if it is not visible and not being practised day to day, it probably means you haven’t got that deeper connection with your employees.

-Donna Croucher, Partner, UK

STRIKING THE BALANCE AS AN EMPATHETIC LEADER

Empathetic leadership isn’t a rose garden. Leaders walk a fine line when it comes to how close they get, and there are a few golden rules to bear in mind. It’s vital not to confuse empathy with sympathy – which might be perceived as condescending or even intrusive. Fortunately, this soft skill can be taught and learned through coaching and training, and various options exist to help leaders practise empathy without crossing the line.

Generating empathy starts with talking about empathy. Leaders should explain why they feel it is important and be clear about their motivation to see employees – and the company – thrive. It’s also about listening. Executives who adopt active listening techniques nurture transparency and trust. Keeping communication channels open and creating a safe space where people can be truly honest is foundational to empathetic leadership.

As Rosset explains, empathetic leaders show their strength at the hardest of times. “To be empathetic means actively appreciating diversity of cultures and backgrounds. And it means cultivating a culture of courage and accepting lessons, even if they are hard to accept, because this is the mark of a truly empathetic leader,” he concludes.

Ultimately, understanding others starts with understanding ourselves. Empathetic leaders aren’t afraid to share their own highs and lows with the team (within reason). At the heart of a human-centred mission is a human boss. Injecting humour and even a dash of self-irony, offering personal anecdotes and positioning oneself as one of the team – not one rung above them – creates rapport and that all-important feeling that “we are in this together”


 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Empathetic leadership is key to cultivating a healthy company culture and building more productive working relationships. Managers who emanate and generate empathy are more effective leaders, and those who operate with ‘attitude certainty provide a sense of stability, helping to create a psychological safety net for those around them in times of uncertainty.

  • Empathetic leaders feel genuine concern for others and are intrinsically motivated to help them thrive.
  • Empathetic leadership can have exponential impact on the core development and long-term growth of an organisation. It helps employees feel valued and understood, leading to better employee wellbeing and productivity.
  • In an increasingly digitalised world, a leader’s ability to communicate empathetically and use their emotions to connect with other people is one of their greatest strengths. Deciphering cues and responding with sincerity and compassion – regardless of the platform – are the hallmarks of an empathetic leader.
  • Talking about empathy and listening to employees’ individual and honest concerns are key to fostering an empathetic company culture.

 


Contact the Professionals Quoted in this Article

Nicolas Bechu

Nicolas Béchu
Executive Board Director
Global Sponsor

Christophe Rosset

Christophe Rosset
Managing Partner
Head of Continental Europe

margarita maldonado

Donna Croucher
Partner
UK