Why empathetic leadership matters for CEOs
Workplace culture, whether good or bad, starts at the top — which is why it’s so crucial for CEOs to be conscious of their leadership styles. Terms like empathetic leadership are more than just a buzzword.
For Vistage speakers Bob Day and Alicia Kae Miller, who have dedicated their careers to teaching empathetic leadership, it means tangible, positive change for your company, your products and your relationship with your employees. Here’s how you can take an empathy-focused approach to your leadership and start achieving results for both your workplace environment and your bottom line.
What is empathetic leadership?
Empathetic leadership is when you genuinely put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re leading and consider their needs and wants as part of your decision-making process. Empathetic executives care about their team members as people and take a holistic approach to their relationships with employees.
“I like to talk about it as moving from perception to perspective,” Day says. That means recognizing that everyone has a different perception of the world informed by their lived experience. As a leader, it’s important to recognize the validity and reality of that perspective.
“Empathy distills down to being seen, being heard and being understood,” Miller adds. “From an employee perspective, it means you don’t have to agree with me, but you need to know where I’m coming from when you lead with empathy.”
4 characteristics of an empathetic leader
Empathetic leaders take on different roles to keep their organizations in good health. A CEO who successfully leads with empathy has the following characteristics:
In Miller’s experience, people are better motivated by empathy than by fear. The carrot works better than the stick. When your employees feel that you care about them, they’re more likely to be loyal and to do their jobs well. They’ll follow your lead because they sincerely want to contribute — not just because you’re the boss.
“If I’m working with you and I’m your boss, but I have an understanding of who you are and where you want to be 5, 10, 20 years from now, then that empathy can motivate you because it can demonstrate a commitment to you and a shared desire to see you be successful,” Day explains.
An empathetic leader is invested in the development of their workforce. They have an open-door policy, but they also know how to step out that door and initiate important or difficult conversations. And they know that a company is only as strong as its people.
“As much as we want to think of ourselves as independent or our own thinkers, in reality, we’re not designed to do it alone,” Day says. Being a supportive leader can turn a business into not just a workplace, but also a community.
Transparency and communication keep everyone on the same page. Otherwise, people will fill the vacuum with whatever makes sense to them, Day says, whether it’s true or not. By considering how employees and team members feel when they’re kept out of the loop, you can avoid accidentally creating mistrust and discontent.
For example, at the onset of the pandemic, Miller worked at a biotech company where upper management refused to communicate a potential emergency plan, even when questioned until it became necessary. This caused chaos and confusion across the organization; employees wanted answers, or at least an acknowledgment that there were no answers to be had.
“Even bad news is really hard to share. But people will be a heck of a lot more loyal and faithful to you if you’re honest with them,” Miller adds.
An empathetic leader makes everyone feel like they belong. That sort of company culture is what every CEO wishes for; fulfilled and happy workers are productive workers, too.
“Empathy is inclusion, inclusion is belonging. And we all want to belong,” Miller says. “It’s why people go to the water cooler or go to church or join clubs. That’s why so many are part of Vistage: to be part of something larger than yourself and give back.”
For Day, it’s all about the feedback loop between leaders and workers. Including everyone in that loop prevents disconnection, which can be damaging.
Outcomes of empathetic leadership
It’s clear that empathetic leadership improves daily life for individuals — but it can also reap benefits for the company as a whole in the following key areas:
A more engaged, comfortable workforce is also a workforce that’s more open with their thoughts. The key to innovation is a willingness to receive ideas from everywhere, even the quietest voice in the room.
“That’s the thing about empathy. We have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and be vulnerable,” Miller says. Otherwise, those people will take their ideas elsewhere.
But vulnerability goes both ways. Empathetic leadership also means admitting that you don’t know everything and that you’re willing to take chances.
“The use of empathy is really an underutilized tool in developing that level of commitment in your people by showing them that you are open and vulnerable to new ideas and new concepts,” Day explains.
Engagement and retention
It’s no secret that many companies struggle with retention these days. Empathetic leadership is key to getting workers to feel connected to your company and engaged in their work. If time is money, then a job is a huge investment that employees want to see a return on. By showing you care about your employees’ development, you’ll make your workplace somewhere people want to stay.
“Who doesn’t want to work in that environment where you’re able to just show up as who you truly are?” Miller asks.
Conversely, a lack of empathy can have a ripple effect. If employees leave your organization feeling undervalued, they might spread that opinion, potentially impacting your reputation as a company and a leader.
Understanding people might have things going on at home makes it easier to work with them during difficult times. It can also make work-life balance more attainable for yourself and your employees.
As Day discovered during the period of his life when his son was fighting terminal cancer, some things can make work feel unimportant. It takes empathy from both sides to achieve the right balance of responsibilities between work and home.
For Miller, flexibility with employees who work from home is also an essential part of empathetic leadership in the post-pandemic era. Accommodating different working styles is key to finding a healthy work-life balance for all.
Ultimately, the role of a CEO is to understand that everyone looks up to you for guidance, and the tone you set trickles down through the whole organization. “If you’re not empathetic, no one will be,” Miller says.