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Leading with Empathy: How CEOs Can Stay Connected During Difficult Times

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

Respect for Work I This article is part of a project series by TruePeople called 'Respect for Work', aiming at clarifying job mandates and restoring appreciation, visibility and trust in the expertise and value added of talented professionals

In a world where connectivity is a key component of success, it's no surprise that Connected CEOs are rapidly becoming the norm. But as organizations face difficult times, how empathetic can these leaders really afford to be? It's a fine balancing act – one that requires both a sincere understanding of the needs of the team and an eye on the long-term strategic objectives of the business. Striking the right balance between these two interests is no small feat, but the rewards – to both the organization and those it serves – are worth the effort.

As times become increasingly difficult, CEOs must strive to stay connected to their team—and lead with empathy. Connecting with colleagues, clients, and customers is essential for a successful, lasting bond. Empathy Leadership is an approach to leadership that focuses on understanding and responding to the needs of others. It is not always easy to stay connected in the face of challenge, but when done right, it can create greater loyalty, trust and innovation. It can also provide a vital source of insight during difficult times—providing a much-needed sense of comfort and resilience. In an era where corporate culture is king, the concept of empathic leadership has emerged as a vital method of improving interoffice dynamics. At its core, empathic leadership values the emotional intelligence of every employee, creating an environment of inclusivity and understanding, of basic psychological safety.

Benefits of Leading with Empathy

In the face of tumultuous times, leading with empathy can provide tremendous benefits. From fostering strong connections with employees to fostering a sense of resilience, empathy during difficult times can be an invaluable asset for CEOs. It's a paradigm shift that can help cultivate trust, create meaningful relationships, and ultimately, lead to a more successful business. According to several studies quoted by Forbes, with the right mindset, everyone can benefit from empathy in various ways:

· Mental Health. A global study by Qualtrics found 42% of people have experienced a decline in mental health. Specifically, 67% of people are experiencing increases in stress while 57% have increased anxiety, and 54% are emotionally exhausted. 53% of people are sad, 50% are irritable, 28% are having trouble concentrating, 20% are taking longer to finish tasks, 15% are having trouble thinking and 12% are challenged to juggle their responsibilities.

· Personal Lives. A study in Occupational Health Science found our sleep is compromised when we feel stressed at work. Research at the University of Illinois found when employees receive rude emails at work, they tend to experience negativity and spillover into their personal lives and particularly with their partners. In addition, a study at Carleton University found when people experience incivility at work, they tend to feel less capable in their parenting.

· Performance, Turnover and Customer Experience. A study published in the Academy of Management Journal found when people are experiencing rudeness at work, their performance suffers and they are less likely to help others. And a new study at Georgetown University found workplace incivility is rising and the effects are extensive, including reduced performance and collaboration, deteriorating customer experiences and increased turnover.

A new study of 889 employees by Catalyst found empathy has some significant constructive effects:

· Innovation. When people reported their leaders were empathetic, they were more likely to report they were able to be innovative—61% of employees compared to only 13% of employees with less empathetic leaders.

· Engagement. 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged compared with only 32% who experienced less empathy.

· Retention. 57% of white women and 62% of women of color said they were unlikely to think of leaving their companies when they felt their life circumstances were respected and valued by their companies. However, when they didn’t feel that level of value or respect for their life circumstances, only 14% and 30% of white women and women of color respectively said they were unlikely to consider leaving.

· Inclusivity. 50% of people with empathetic leaders reported their workplace was inclusive, compared with only 17% of those with less empathetic leadership.

· Work-Life. When people felt their leaders were more empathetic, 86% reported they are able to navigate the demands of their work and life—successfully juggling their personal, family and work obligations. This is compared with 60% of those who perceived less empathy.

Practical approach for CEOs

CEOs face a unique challenge during difficult times: staying connected with their teams and leading with empathy. Fortunately, there are practical strategies to help CEOs stay connected and foster an environment of understanding and support. From virtual meetings and check-ins to open communication and transparency on decisions, these strategies can help CEOs lead with empathy and build strong relationships with their teams. 'Staying Connected During Difficult Times' is a key step for any successful CEO.

Yet, what do you do as a CEO of such a company that has the mission to save the business from worse consequences, you need to downsize some people and you need to safeguard from risks? How can you fire people and not risk data breach for example (employees have large access to confidential data and, for this reason, many times layoffs come unexpected and hurtful, people just learn one day that they don't have access to their data and account any more), remain humane and empathetic about it? I am not one to answer this question and in fact I am openly thrilled about not having to.

But let’s hear out someone who has been in these shoes and happens to be one of the most empathetic leaders I met. When I discuss with Dan about his people and the teams he formed he practically gets emotional about it, his soul is partly still there, in the company he managed for 17 years and of which he was the first employee. I’ll let him tell the story of being empathic in a transactional world and the conclusions he made:

So, Dan, let us know a few words about who you are as a leader and former CEO and what you did? What’s driven you in your career?

‘I started my professional journey in automotive engineering. After a short while, I became aware of my strengths in sales and negotiations, skills which provided more professional satisfaction to me. I decided to work for the most dynamic industry at that time, FMCG. My achievements gained with hard work, integrity, and curiosity to learn new things, ability to observe, acquire and analyze market information helped me throughout my professional career in achieving business objectives. I had the opportunity to learn a lot from many professionals I worked with.

Step by step, I got the recognition for my professional achievements and I was assigned with more managerial responsibilities. Dan Stere, ex CEO of Lindstrom Romania

Working with people and succeeding in achieving results along with my teams is another key strength I have been able to demonstrate and develop during my professional career. I can define it as my “professional passion”.

Another key motivator factor for me comes from the attractivity of the projects I choose to be involved in, defined by the positive impact in improving people’s quality of life.

A good example to support this statement is my latest position as Managing Director of a B2B textile rental service company that helps to improve both satisfaction of the end users of company products and services and the environment by contributing to improving sustainability and circularity in the textile industry

I was the first employee of the company and responsible for business development from scratch creating new and developing the teams. I see this as another strength of mine.

I am a leader who uses situational leadership styles. Depending on the circumstances I am either a visionary, pacesetting, participative or coaching leader.’

Just how empathetic can a CEO really be without risking his job or longevity?

I see empathy as a key ability that managers should use in their activity if they want to succeed in creating healthy and professional workplace that will lead employees to perform at maximum and achieve their objectives by feeling safe and taken care of within their organization, and therefore feel a sense of trust and belonging within the team.

Creating trust by transparency in communication, fairness and objectiveness in assessing the level of performance for each employee are key behaviours managers should consistently display in order to create an empathetic workplace environment in which “red flags” are brought to surface, talked about and dealt with within team.

From my perspective, the CEO should have the ability to find the best way to communicate good news and bad news to all stakeholders in an authentic manner that will contribute to build trust. S(h)e should never “fake anything,” and it is essential to be always genuine and honest.

As leaders, there are many times when members of our teams will face tough situations. They may lose a big client. They may not get the promotion they wanted. They may get into a conflict with another member of the team. If we take too much on the disappointment, anger, frustration or impatience of the people who report to us, we will become exhausted too. From this perspective, too much empathy in leadership can drain us.'

Have you had to take less empathetic measures as a CEO and what did you do in those situations?

'During my managerial career, I was involved in less empathetic measures like deciding or implementing individual and general laid-offs, salary freezing or bonus scheme changes, key suppliers’ replacements and business restructuring. Depending on the situation, I was always as much transparent as possible without affecting my authentic profile, explaining to all stakeholders the background behind the decision and how it will improve the business and professional life of the people or teams involved.'

How can a company spot an empathetic leader if wanting to hire one?

'First, they should try to find out more about the person via comments and reviews from digital channels and social media. I believe that a manager’s behaviour can be reflected in how employees and business partners are commenting on these channels about the business environment s(h)e creates. Also, his/her posts content and comments can bring some ideas about how empathetic the leader is.

Second, in the recruitment process, there should be psychometric tests which can bring more objectivity in evaluating their personality. It has been shown that empathy has a genetic basis. This means that within the empathy spectrum, there are naturally more empathetic persons than others, because of their biological and genetic predispositions. However, given a person’s predisposition, empathy is also a skill that can be trained to become a more empathetic person.

Thirdly, ask for references about a person's behavior from different layers of his past and if possible, from his current organization.'

The Long and Short of It

In tough times, it's important for CEOs to remember that empathy is a key factor in successful leadership and business growth. Empathy contributes to positive relationships and organizational cultures and it also drives results. Empathy may not be a brand new skill, but it has a new level of importance and the fresh research makes it especially clear how empathy is the leadership competency to develop and demonstrate now and in the future of work.

That being said, it's also essential to remain cognizant of the overall business objectives and remain focused on achieving them. Empathy should always be exercised but never at the expense of making the best possible business decisions, since its future sustainability and safeguarding other people's and employee's interests are at stake.


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