Simply ordering CEOs to be more empathetic isn’t that helpful. To lead with empathy and build a positive organizational culture, CEOs must rely on a cognitive power that great leaders already possess in spades: curiosity.
“You don’t understand what I’m going through.” “You don’t really cares about me and my colleagues.” “The culture of this organization is terrible.” “I’m leaving.”
These and other complaints of employees defecting to competitors (or out of the workforce altogether) signal growing discontent with a majority of organizations, for which many workers blame the leaders. Indeed, in a February survey of 15,000 American workers by Gallup, only 25% of participants “strongly agreed” that their employer cared about their well-being: that’s half of the percentage who said so at the start of the pandemic.
This situation of dissatisfied, disengaged or departing employees only adds to the set of challenges, unprecedented in their complexity and magnitude, that CEOs currently face. The demands of leadership are increasing: pressure to satisfy an ever wider range of stakeholders, ripple effects of the pandemic, including supply chain dysfunction, inflation, increased cost of labor and the need to connect authentically and empathically with employees.
CEO’s job just got harder
Under these conditions, it is not surprising that many CEOs do not know exactly how to lead. What worked for them in the past doesn’t work for them today. Findings from AlixPartners’ 2022 Disruption Index suggest CEOs are experiencing heightened job insecurity, with 72% of participants worried about losing their jobs due to disruption, a huge increase from the 52% who expressed the same worry a year ago.
Obviously, the job of CEO has become much more difficult. Add to that the growing population of Gen Z workers, and the work might seem overwhelming. Business leaders must continue to do what they have always done: take responsibility for setting the direction and guiding their organizations to greater growth and sustainable success. But now they also have to excel at things like empathy, to connect with their people in a meaningful and authentic way. Increasingly strident calls in the business press for CEOs to be “more empathetic” and leadership development workshops focused on empathy have many CEOs feeling not a bit frustrated. As noted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “More business leaders are trying to learn how to be understanding and compassionate to support pandemic-weary workers.”
The problem of empathy
Empathy – the ability to understand the experiences, perspectives and emotions of others and to demonstrate a real connection with them – is a key component of emotional intelligence (EQ), one of the three defining capacities of transformative leadership . When senior managers, starting with the CEO, demonstrate that they value people as more than just productive units and connect with their employees on a meaningful level, they establish the beginnings of a positive culture in which people feel understood, valued and supported. Companies that consistently adopt these leadership behaviors foster cultures that, in turn, more easily attract and retain the talent they need to succeed in a highly disrupted and increasingly competitive world.
But many CEOs don’t know how empathy works in practice and how to show it in a natural way. Is exhibiting caring behavior enough or should it do more? Some are skeptical of the very nature of empathy; the notion may feel “squishy” or look like a form of facade needed to give the right impression. They wouldn’t feel authentic engaging in overtly empathetic behaviors, or they want to learn how to do that, but they need a playbook. Simply telling them to “be more empathetic” is essentially no help. .
Being empathetic is not as simple as listening, nodding in an understanding way, or presenting a caring attitude. Moreover, empathy is not a feeling in itself; nor is it a willingness to endlessly wallow in emotions. Rather, it is a cognitive ability, whereby you actively decide to find out what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes – to understand their situation, not to “feel their pain”. “.
You don’t need a playbook to master this. What you really need is something you already have in spades: curiosity. As a CEO, you are already curious by nature: about markets, strategy, competition; in short, all the things that affect your business. You can become just as curious about the people around you who work for you: their experiences, their aspirations, their concerns. And in doing so, you will get information that you will naturally want to act on. With your innate curiosity, concern for others, and desire as a leader to stand up for your people and bring out the best in them, you will see in most situations how you can act in the name of good. -be of your people. It all starts with being curious about others and then using that understanding to take positive action.
What does curiosity look like?
A few tips can help you activate your curiosity about others so that it has an impact. First, ask others open-ended questions that invite a meaningful response and listen carefully. Questions such as “How are you doing with your work schedule?” “What do you find most difficult these days?” “What is life like for you right now?” or “How would you like to see your career develop?” are all good places to start.
As with all things interpersonal, be sure to show genuine interest in the answers, including paraphrasing what you hear and resisting any urge to interrupt. Ask clarifying questions and even guess how they might be feeling – it’s okay to be wrong. It’s your interest that lets your employees know you are thinking of them. If you think it’s appropriate and a good relationship has been established, don’t be afraid to take it a step further, such as, “What do you think makes you feel that way? ? or “What do you think led to this situation?” During these exchanges, be sure to spend more time listening than talking.
Most importantly, be careful when learning something you didn’t know before. For example, someone tells you that they have to take multiple buses to get to work, which made their commute not only long, but dangerous and scary amidst the worst of the pandemic. Or you hear of a recently divorced employee caring for a sick parent while raising two children alone and struggling to complete the training needed to achieve his career goals.
These conversations allow you to step out of your own world and into another person’s world. And what you learn can inspire you to help by taking positive action. You’re a smart leader who cares about your people, so ask helpful follow-up questions like, “How can we help make things easier for you?” or “What could our company do to help you achieve your goals?” The answers can point the way to practical solutions, such as suggesting a more flexible work schedule or connecting someone with a mentor or helpful support resource.
Curtis Rising, an executive adviser, sees curiosity as a root cause of CEO success: “Curiosity is about bringing together a wide range of perspectives, a key to leadership. Yes, curiosity is about deep listening and awareness, but it’s the opposite of passive. Curiosity means constantly looking for root causes and viewpoints that haven’t yet been brought to the table. It means celebrating the viewpoints that complete the picture. And the fact for the CEO to ask candid questions about the perspectives and experiences of others is a magnet for top talent and rocket fuel for the culture.”
Strengthen your curiosity “muscle”
While it’s relatively easy to activate your curiosity about others, several forces can lead to setbacks. For example, going higher in an organization can make it harder to understand what others are going through in the reporting hierarchy. As you get more benefits, you might forget that other members of the organization don’t have such benefits. It becomes too easy to make a faux pas, like complaining that your driver arrived late that morning or that your assistant is absent, comments that would likely seem insensitive to those at another level of the organization .
To avoid such missteps, sharpen your self-awareness through regular feedback mechanisms such as 360-degree surveys of your leadership style. Adopt a growth mindset, being open about your results and sharing with people what you are working on. Host regular in-person “brown lunches” or roundtables with employees at all levels, giving them the opportunity to share their progress with you.
Empower your team
It’s also crucial to hold each member of your leadership team accountable for doing the same; show a positive curiosity towards others. Ask them how curious they are they or they relate to the people who report to them and what they know about the individual tensions and difficulties of their teams. Do they care? Are they motivated to find out? If not, why are they in a leadership position? Just asking such questions can teach them to value curiosity and use it as a leadership tool. And when you teach your team curiosity, your team becomes a force multiplier, fostering a positive organizational culture.
When you have empathy, everyone wins. Your organization wins because the best leaders and employees want to work there and stay there, even when times are tough. Leaders and employees win because they feel supported and know that you are helping them meet and even exceed their expectations. And you win, because unleashing the power of empathy satisfies the core desire of every great CEO: to do the right thing for others. This reciprocity forges a stronger and closer bond between you and those you lead. And in a world where people leave their bosses, not their companies, that connection may be your most powerful secret weapon yet.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide on the subject. Specialist advice should be sought regarding your particular situation.