Does Empathetic Leadership Require a Team Approach?

The key to empathetic solution finding to challenges—particularly those related to where and when employees work—could be making it a team effort and doing away with most hard-and-fast rules about what can and cannot be accommodated.

When an employee comes to an executive with a challenge, how do you judge if that executive handles the challenge in an empathetic way? I like to imagine that if I were in that executive’s shoes, it would be easy for me as a sensitive person to work through challenges with employees. However, with the many pressures executives are under, it’s not always possible to arrive at a solution that solves an employee’s challenge while not endangering the business, or putting undue pressure on the employee’s colleagues.

I came across an article in CEOworld Magazine by Shelby Scarbrough on emotional intelligence, which highlights the importance of empathy. “According to a 2018 State of the Workplace Empathy study, 96 percent believed empathy was an important quality for the leadership of a company. In an increase over previous years, 92 percent of those same respondents felt that empathy in their company is still undervalued,” Scarbrough writes. “The message is that employers who value empathy and promote an empathetic work environment can increase the happiness quotient inside their company, which translates into quantifiable gains in productivity and reduces costly turnover. In a post-COVID-19, remote- and distance-work world, the need to nurture a compassionate company environment is more important than ever.”

Make It a Team Effort

The key to empathetic solution finding could be making it a team effort and doing away with most hard-and-fast rules about what can and cannot be accommodated.

What happens if the employee asks for a flexible schedule in which they are never required to work on the weekend, while all of their colleagues are expected to rotate days working on weekends? The reflexive response may be to say, “No.” However, an empathetic solution may be found by bringing in the employee’s work team for feedback. They may respond with immediate anger. Or they may be receptive to creative solutions, such as getting to come to work later or leave earlier some days, while the employee who can’t work on weekends covers a few hours at the beginning or end of the workday. The other employees would take turns experiencing the benefits of their colleague filling in for them in the morning or in the evening to make up for that employee’s inability to work on the weekends.

With employees returning to offices, a common new question is what to require of employees hired during the pandemic when the company was still at 100 percent remote work. For example, let’s say you hired an employee who lives two hours from the office. It would be possible for them to come in a few times a week, but it could be quality-of-life-draining. Do you require it anyway? If all of their co-workers are coming in every week, is it fair to make an exception?

Like the example of the employee who can’t work on the weekends while their colleagues are required to do so, you may be surprised at how empathetic and flexible your employees are. The burden for finding empathetic solutions again could be made easier by bringing in the team. “Sandy has told us that, though she could manage it, it would be exhausting and potentially harmful for her to come in three times a week like the rest of us. We’re all within an hour, or less, of commuting time from the office, while Sandy is a full two hours. She would be spending four hours three days a week—12 hours a week—commuting. We would be entitled to require her to do this, as we are requiring everyone else to come in three days a week, but we also can accommodate her request to remain a wholly remote employee. How do you feel about this?

Then start by asking each of Sandy’s colleagues individually how they feel about making an exception and letting her continue to work remotely. That way, you get each employee’s authentic response, versus the response that is the result of echoing the loudest and most forceful voice in the room.

If Sandy is a valued employee, who is there for her colleagues when they need her and does a great job on her work, there’s a good chance no one will begrudge her continuing to work from home. I wouldn’t.

Prevent Knee-Jerk “No” Responses

Empathetic solutions become easier to find when you get the cooperation and buy-in of the people who will be impacted by those solutions. Rather than training managers to reflexively say, “No,” to requests that fall outside “the rules,” they could be trained to evaluate whether the requests would compromise the company or other employees. If the answer to that question is, “No,” then the request should be accommodated, as long as the other employees are on board with the solution.

Do you train managers to work with employees to find empathetic solutions to challenges?