October 26, 2018
by Jernej P.

CEO’s point of view: Empathy in the workplace

October 26, 2018
by Jernej P.

According to a 2018 survey by Businesslover, there’s a big disconnect between where CEO’s perceive their workplace is on the empathy scale and how their employees see it, and that’s a problem. Empathy is an important trait both as an employer and a human being. It’s our ability to understand each other and share feelings, it’s the difference between being a team made up of faceless cogs in a machine and a team made up of real people with different personalities who feel understood and valued. It doesn’t take a genius to see which team will be the most effective.

As a CEO, it’s important to not only have empathy yourself but inspire empathy through every level of your business. And for your employees to feel it. Businesslover’s CEO (the guys who took out the survey), says that there is a disconnect in the workplace between what employees think and what the CEO thinks is going on. We decided to speak to several CEOs about this very issue to see what they think.

Empathy is an important trait both as an employer and a human being.

In terms of the importance of empathy in the workplace, Karima Mariama-Arthur gets straight to the point: “Empathy is a core component of emotional intelligence. We know from seminal EQ research that a lack of emotional intelligence can play a larger role in derailing a person’s career than a lack of technical expertise. When colleagues or team members fail to embrace empathy as a core conceptual framework for elevating their interpersonal relationships, the quality of those relationships declines. What that looks like in practice is a high level of resentment, a lack of trust and an unwillingness to collaborate on projects where each person is expected to carry their own weight. Empathy naturally brings people closer together and helps them to work better in teams because heightened awareness, tolerance and understanding each guide their motivations and thus, their interactions.”

Steffan Surdek (Speaker, Author, and Coach) works with leaders to unleash their co-creative leadership agrees. “A lack of empathy can create a lot of frustration in teams. I find that lack of empathy is often closely tied with people not wanting to take responsibility for their impact. In some teams I see, there is a mindset of -I can say whatever I want, however, I want- and essentially you just need to be able to take it or that is your problem. This creates a space where team members may not feel safe to express their opinions and also it creates teams where there is a lot of conversational debt — meaning – things we do not talk about here.”

So how can actions of CEO have a positive impact on team empathy? It would appear from talking to the experts, their own behavior is the linchpin to getting it right.

Nina Angelovska (CEO & Cofounder at Grouper.mk, president at Macedonian e-Commerce Association) says she believes that only teams with high morale can be cooperative, effective and productive and the leader plays a key role in boosting morale: “The energy that the leader brings to the team, the way of communication and sharing their vision and values can significantly impact the team’s motivation, enthusiasm, and spirit. I think that there isn’t a perfect recipe for good leadership except setting a good example. And I believe it is my duty to do so for all of our people and for all other young people that look up to me.”

Karima Mariama-Arthur agrees, CEOs must set the example, “A leader is expected to be the example and, as such, their actions will almost always affect the team’s morale, which necessarily impacts their individual performance and the outcomes of the overall organization.” According to Karima, “A leader must be mindful of how their choices and overall behavior translate in terms of morale, culture and individual and organizational performance. These metrics can be quantified and have a tangible socio-economic impact.”

There isn’t a perfect recipe for good leadership except setting a good example.

Here’s where the disconnect comes in. It’s very well saying you empathize as a business leader and you promote a company culture of empathy – yet if you don’t behave in an emphatic way – your employees just won’t see it. If you recognize this as you, what can you do about it? Or experts have some tips:

  • Be a good listener – Karima Mariama-Arthur says “One critical strategy I leverage to better understand any audience is being a good listener. That means listening intently (actively) by tuning into the speaker’s purpose, values, and core message, all without interrupting or indulging distractions.”
  • But don’t just listen – Seeking additional information by asking probative questions also helps provide greater context and a nuanced understanding of what is at stake. It demonstrates your listening and you’ll gain additional insights into the person you’re talking to.
  • Really engage with your employees – Just like with friends and family, relationships flourish when you spend quality time with them. It’s no different for employees and this should happen both inside and outside of the work environment. By interacting in scenarios like games or sports, you get a better sense of who people really are and what drives them. A natural progression of those repeated interactions is that more substantive relationships develop. Real engagement is stifled in superficial settings. Titles, pedigree, past performance etc don’t really shed light on the details needed to help you to truly understand who someone is and in most cases, how you can help them to succeed within the organization.
  • Get to know your employees as people – Taking the time to talk to people and get to know them on a more personal level is paramount according to Steffan Surdek. “What makes them tick? What lights them up? What shuts them down? Knowing this allows you to better connect and empathize with people. Connecting with people is so important. You need to try to get a sense of the entire person (work and personal life) if you really want to be able empathize with them. Sometimes, what makes people react is not just what happens at work but what is going on elsewhere in their lives.”
  • Modify your managerial style to different personality types. Once you’ve done all the above; you’ve listened, observed and interacted with your team you need to adapt. The most difficult part of any manager’s job is people management. He or she is required to lead, motivate, train, inspire, and encourage.  Nina Angelovska says, “It can be a real challenge to modify my managerial style to fit the different personalities who are motivated and inspired in different ways and by different things.”
It is a leader’s responsibility to recognize the potential in people and have the wind at their back.

A leader is expected to be the example, their actions will almost always affect the team’s morale, which necessarily impacts their individual performance and the outcomes of the overall organization. The final thought from Nina Angelovska, “I believe that when you work with passion when you respect your people when you know their strengths and weaknesses, understanding them can come pretty naturally. At the end of the day, it is a leader’s responsibility to recognize the potential in people and have the wind at their back.”

Jernej P.
Head Of Growth