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ARTICLE: It’s not enough for CEOs to empathize with employees

Source Strategy + Business, Illustration by Klaus Vedfelt
Source Strategy + Business, Illustration by Klaus Vedfelt

“You find invariably among CEOs that life is business. There is an operative cruelty which is seen as an entitlement.”

Author E.L. Doctorow delivers this disturbing indictment of business leaders in his novel City of God. Rasmus Hougaard, founder and CEO of the leadership training consultancy Potential Project, says of this observation: “It is almost as if [some CEOs] think, ‘Now that I’m a senior executive, I don’t have to be nice anymore.’”

CEOs who tend toward this way of thinking might find the principles in Hougaard's book, Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, helpful if they want to learn to better empathize with their employees. Hard-nosed people management once espoused by CEOs like “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap and “Neutron Jack” Welch end up getting punished because people won't work with them anymore. There's also a personal cost when CEOs who live up to this caricature have shut down their emotions, become cold decision-makers, and turned into someone they don't even like.

An approach to leadership based solely on empathy has its own adverse side effects. Many CEOs say that they make multibillion-dollar decisions and sleep fine at night, but when they have to give tough feedback to employees or restructure the workforce, they don’t sleep for weeks. Empathy is only the first step in dealing with emotionally fraught people issues. CEOs need to connect with empathy, but lead with wise and intentional compassion.

Wisdom is the ability to see reality clearly and act accordingly. Compassion is the intention to be of benefit to others. Research conducted by Potential Project, including data from 15,000 leaders and 150,000 employees in 5,000 companies around the world, has established a direct correlation between wise compassion and leadership rank. Leaders who rate themselves high on compassion have 66% lower stress than their less compassionate counterparts, a 200% lower intention to quit, and 14% higher efficacy. (On an interesting side note, male leaders rank themselves higher on wise compassion than female leaders rank themselves. But employees don’t agree—they rank female leaders higher than male leaders.)

So how do you bring wise compassion to the hard conversations you are called to have with people? Take Hougaard's advice:

  1. First, take time to think through what to say, how to say it, questions the other person may ask, and how you might respond. As difficult it is for you, it’s more difficult for that other person, so have the decency to respect them by coming to the conversation well prepared.

  2. Second, separate the person from the problem. It’s easy for us as humans to think that if a person does that bad thing, they are a bad person. To avoid this pitfall, try to see the whole person sitting in front of you, not just the employee who fulfills a role.

  3. Third, provide the person with options, because it shows that you care and want to work together through this process. It gives people a sense of control, even if only in a small way.

  4. Fourth, always respond—don’t react, during conversations. Many CEOs report situations where they reacted and the conversation became a fight.

  5. Fifth, give the person time to respond to what you've said. If you have to drop a bomb on someone, they need the space to process. You simply need to be there and help them process at their own pace.”

How to become a compassionate leader in very simple and memorable terms? Unlearn management and relearn being human.

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