HR veteran shares inconvenient truths about being an empathetic boss

April 11, 2024
4 min read
Ethnic psychologist touching black depressed clients shoulder

In March 2022, a movement (#HorribleBosses) rocked the Nigerian tech ecosystem. #HorribleBosses was triggered by TechCabal's damning exposé on Bento Founder/CEO, Ebun Okubanjo.

Several months have passed since the event sparked important conversations about workplace toxicity. Okubanjo even recently talked about the incident and the lessons he learnt.

I discovered that perspectives on what constitutes toxicity have also undergone a shift based on the views of different generations of workers. For Millenials, it might mean having to endure verbal abuse, while for a retired civil servant in their 60s, it would have been stopping them from starting side gigs.

A talent recruiter, on the other hand, believes it is subjective. For instance, an employer who demands accountability from employees—and penalises them for defaulting—after clearly communicating expectations and empowering them, might be wrongly labelled toxic.

Despite varying interpretations, most people agree that empathetic leaders are key to fostering healthy workplace cultures.

Though there are widely accepted indications of toxicity in the workplace, including discrimination, harassment, victimisation, and bullying—all prohibited by labour laws globally—leaders are expected to adopt emotional intelligence (EI) in the workplace to navigate the grey areas associated with toxicity.

The World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs 2023 report (pdf) qualifies qualities associated with EI as top leadership skills for 2024. This skill encompasses managing relationships, conflicts, setbacks, and emotions while achieving productivity, wellbeing, and maintaining morale in the workplace.

According to a September 2023 report based on HP's first Work Relationship Index, employees prefer to work for empathetic and emotionally intelligent leaders even if it means taking pay cuts.

Because of workers' exposure to unhealthy work cultures, lower pay seems like a valid tradeoff for happiness at work.

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Having established how critical empathetic leaders are to sustaining a healthy workplace culture, HR leader, Emmanuel Michael, shares some truths about empathetic leadership from his over two decades of experience.

Even with empathy, tough decisions may not always favour employees

One employer who knows that their business can take a hit—financially and productivity-wise—at certain times during the empathetic leadership journey, believes "some things are more important than work and blind ambition." 

Michael highlights the importance of an employer putting themselves in the shoes of their employees if they are going to get empathy right. The organisation and team members must be treated fairly within allowable limits, and to get this right, leadership must strike a delicate balance.

Supporters of empathetic leadership often hint at it being a way of supporting employees and winning their hearts, but it's wrong to believe that their decisions would always favour the employees.

While the skill is necessary for team management and talent retention, it is not a tool to make employees feel good. There are times when tough decisions must be made for the greater good of the company.

Being transparent about the decision-making process while constantly caring about employee wellbeing is the key to finding a safe middle ground.

"If leaders could spend more time communicating effectively by clarifying how decisions were made, it would go a long way to ensure that every individual feels valued for their contribution even if the final decision does not align with team members' sentiments."

Leaders who are not naturally empathetic can learn the skill

Empathy is not solely innate, it can be developed as a skill.

"Research has shown that you can practise empathy without being “an empathetic person,” hence, my belief that it can be developed as a skill."

Approaches to showing empathy can often be misconstrued, especially given the use of idioms like "put yourself in their shoes" to describe it.

A direct translation might insinuate that the leader should be ready to take on the emotional burden of the employee or feel what they feel.

Rather, it requires learning to reflect on the employees' feelings in a way that the leader will understand enough to provide support where it is needed.

Michael offers proven recommendations for practising empathy in the workplace, including an awareness of burnout in the workplace, an interest in team members' needs, demonstrating willingness to help, and exhibiting compassion.

For Michael's suggestions to work well, a leader must consistently speak about empathy.

Empathy makes a significant difference in the workplace

A leader's behaviour is one of the factors that determine a team's performance levels. They also influence productivity and innovation in the workplace.

Based on the research findings from a survey conducted by Deloitte in the US in 2022 targetting full and part-time employees, EI and empathy were considered critical elements in fostering stronger ways of working in a hybrid environment

Agreeing with existing surveys, Michael confirms how employees' engagement with work can be improved through the influence of an empathetic leader.

Seeing as the metrics used to measure the impact of empathy in the workplace focus on care and fairness, anonymous surveys can help employers understand how employees perceive them.

Michael points out a Catalyst report showing that 61% of the 900 employees surveyed agree that working under an empathetic senior leader helps them be more innovative. In comparison, 76% say it keeps them at work.

Drawing from his extensive experience in leadership, career development, and employee experience, Michael emphasises that empathy as a skill is not a nice-to-have, but a valuable tool required for an effectively engaged workforce. It’s also a great way to earn employees’ trust and loyalty, which have a way of ultimately contributing to profitability.

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Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.
Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.
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Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.

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