HR Archives - Senior Executive

In the early days of the pandemic, empathy and empathetic leadership emerged as the premier topics of conversation in corporate America. As businesses shut their doors and employees began working from home, leaders understandably searched for answers to the big question: How do I keep my business operational while taking into account the unique and deeply personal challenges employees are facing?

As an organizational psychologist and empathy researcher, I was excited to see the term make its way into the mainstream workplace vocabulary, but there was still a learning curve as business leaders began to incorporate empathy into their organizations. In my work with executives across the country, I’ve encountered the same four myths about empathetic leadership that, if left unchecked, have the potential to seriously harm a business. Here are a few ways to mitigate that risk.

1.  ‘Empathetic Leadership Results in a Lack of Leadership.’

This myth is probably the most damaging of the four we’ll cover because it can limit how much empathy a leader ultimately shows their team. Typically, those who hold this belief fundamentally misunderstand empathetic leadership. They assume that leading with empathy means there is no clear structure within an organization and that everyone is so busy talking about their feelings all the time that hardly any work gets done—but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a recent survey found the exact opposite: empathetic leadership is actually linked with higher levels of productivity.

A lack of leadership often goes hand-in-hand with a lack of accountability across a team—from the executive board to entry-level associates. So how do you solve this? Ironically enough, by empathizing with employees and taking on a holistic approach to problem-solving. When people know their needs will be met with compassion and understanding, they’re much more likely to ask clarifying questions or take ownership of their part in an unsuccessful venture. If you’re concerned about a lack of clear, strong leadership in your organization, start by incorporating more empathy, not less.

2. ‘We Have to Have Similar Experiences to Empathize.’

Many people assume, both inside and outside of the workplace, that we can’t empathize with others unless we’ve experienced similar circumstances ourselves. However, empathy is about understanding the emotional experience of a situation, not necessarily relating to the situation itself. In her 2018 book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown summarizes it perfectly: “Empathy is not connecting to an experience. Empathy is connecting to the emotions that underpin the experience.” When confronted with a situation you think you can’t relate to, pause and ask yourself, “Have I ever experienced the emotion this situation is evoking for this other person?”

Let’s use conversations around DEI as a real-world example. These conversations can be polarizing, but they don’t need to be. When someone feels uncomfortable hearing about another person’s lived experience that’s different from their own, they might respond with, “Well that’s not my experience.” Responding this way can be hurtful to the individual, who will likely feel dismissed and unheard. This can translate to feeling largely unsupported by the organization itself, which could elicit a number of consequences such as disconnected teams and interpersonal conflicts.

I’ll say it again: Relatability doesn’t matter when it comes to empathizing. So let’s go back to our DEI example. Let’s assume during a company-wide training, someone is brave enough to share that they’ve been the target of microaggressions on several occasions since joining the organization. Even if you’ve never experienced microaggressions yourself, you can still understand why it would be traumatic for someone. Ask yourself: Have you ever felt belittled, condescended to or stereotyped based on certain aspects of your identity? If the answer is yes, then you can empathize.

Payal Beri

“In my work with executives across the country, I’ve encountered the same four myths about empathetic leadership that, if left unchecked, have the potential to seriously harm a business.”

– Payal Beri

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3. ‘Empathy Isn’t a Teachable Skill.’

Considering empathy is a “soft skill,” it’s understandable why some might assume that we either feel empathy or we don’t, as if there’s nothing we can do to change our intrinsic emotional response. But like any skill, it’s possible to get better with practice.

But how exactly do you “practice” empathy? You ask questions until you understand. If one of your employees tells you about a problem that’s impacting them and/or their ability to carry out their duties, start by asking questions such as, “Can you tell me more about that?” or, “How does this make you feel?” or “Is there anything I can do to support you?” From there, you can begin working on a solution.

It’s important to train ourselves to open up when we’re in uncomfortable situations instead of shutting down. If we give ourselves time to ask difficult questions, we can improve our empathy skills one issue at a time. But don’t get me wrong—there will be some growing pains. You will probably never fully understand every single situation, but over time, as you connect with a variety of emotional experiences, you’ll find it gets easier and easier.

4. ‘Empathy is Empathy—There’s Only One Type.’ 

This last myth is pretty easy to debunk considering the amount of research available on the three distinct types of empathy, but let’s dig into these distinctions and consider how each type of empathy can be useful in different professional situations.

The first type of empathy is cognitive empathy, or intellectually understanding what someone is going through but not experiencing those feelings yourself. Cognitive empathy is an excellent tool when you need to keep some emotional distance from a situation, such as when entering a negotiation. In these situations, you might hear someone say something like, “I understand you feel this way.” Granted, it’s not the warmest or fuzziest type of empathy but there’s definitely a time and place for it in your business.

The next is emotional empathy, sometimes known as parallel empathy, or when we sense and take on someone else’s emotions. Imagine for a moment that you’re a mentor to an up-and-comer in your field. You support them as they prepare to pitch a potential client, but ultimately, your mentee doesn’t close the deal. Afterward, your mentee is upset and a little embarrassed to have lost such a monumental opportunity, and although their loss doesn’t impact your business or career, you feel the same sadness and embarrassment your mentee is feeling. Emotional empathy can be an excellent tool when it comes to things like team building, but make sure you have firm boundaries in place or you might end up carrying every emotion as your own, which can leave you feeling exhausted and unproductive. 

Finally, there’s compassionate empathy, also known as reactive empathy, which I consider to be the highest level of empathy. Compassionate empathy makes you want to spring into action and provide tangible solutions to the problem at hand. Of course, if you lack boundaries and start trying to solve everyone’s problems, this type of empathy could present some issues. But in most cases, this is the kind of empathy you should strive for in your organization.

When one of your team members is faced with an issue, you’ll want to go beyond simply acknowledging their experience (cognitive empathy) in order to embrace those emotions as your own (emotional empathy) and actually provide tangible support as best you can (compassionate empathy). Your organization will almost certainly be better for it.

More and more, senior leaders are enlisting experts from outside their organization to help them address the issues they’re facing, which can be an excellent approach for resolving the problems plaguing your company—the operative word here being “can.” 

Bringing in a third party that specializes in the roadblocks you keep running into, or one who has spent years refining the type of workshop your team would benefit from, can bring new insights and fresh perspectives. But before you hand over the reins and take a seat in the audience, there are a few steps you can take to increase the odds that the workshop is a success and the lessons learned stick with your team for the long term. 

The fact is: organizational development coaches aren’t fairy godmothers, no matter what anyone tells you, and in order for any workshop or program to be successful, there is some important work you’ll need to do before you even begin your search for a workshop facilitator. As a leadership development consultant, there are 3 tasks I recommend every leader should check off their to-do list before they schedule an organizational development workshop for their team.

Ask Yourself the Hard Questions

In my first meeting with every one of my clients, I ask them a question along the lines of, “Why can’t you fix the problem yourself?” This might seem kind of harsh, but hear me out. Most of the time this question takes them by surprise. It makes the client sit back and pause for a moment. Why do they need my help? Why can’t they solve this issue on their own?

Let me be clear: there are no wrong answers to this question. Anything from “I’m conflict-averse” to “I don’t feel equipped to lead this discussion” is a perfectly valid response, but having an answer to this question will give your facilitator a clearer understanding of why you’ve brought them in as well as the outcomes you expect them to produce.

Depending on the client’s answer to this question, we might discover that they are, in fact, in need of a facilitator to lead their team through the exercise—or we might discover that the client actually is capable of fixing the problem on their own and that they’re more in need of a consultant, someone to walk through their solution with an outsider’s point of view before the client takes it back to their team.

Answering this question honestly—to yourself first and only then to any development coach you may hire—will allow you to dig deeper into the issue, giving you the opportunity to actually solve the issue rather than simply smooth surface tension.

Mylena Sutton

“The fact is: organizational development coaches aren’t fairy godmothers, no matter what anyone tells you, and in order for any workshop or program to be successful, there is some important work you’ll need to do before you even begin your search for a workshop facilitator.”

– Mylena Sutton

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Get the Whole Team Involved

One of the primary issues I and others in my field run into is resistance from team members. Depending on what we’re solving for, some people might not think it’s much of an issue, while others might be actively contributing to the problem and are therefore unaware of the issue entirely. When the majority of the team thinks a workshop is a waste of time before we even begin, we’re not going to get very far. 

In my experience, the most effective solution is to ask the team what their perspective on the problem is before the workshop even begins. How does the issue impact their ability to do their job? What potential solutions do they see? When people feel involved in the problem-solving process, they’re much more likely to engage in implementing the solution.

As with most instances of resistance, what I encounter from a given team member is typically rooted in fear of the unknown. When we don’t know what to expect, people may be understandably anxious, and that anxiety might in turn manifest as resistance. Sidestep this problem entirely by addressing any potential fears head-on.

Go With Your Gut

In an ideal world, you’ll have built professional relationships with consultants and coaches before you have a need for them and should be able to pull in others you already know and trust when you’re faced with an issue. But if that isn’t the case, and you’re researching and interviewing facilitators for the first time, I strongly recommend following your instincts and only hiring someone you like and respect. Even if someone is considered “the best,” if you aren’t able to connect with them, it’s better you go your separate ways. Otherwise, you’ll question every suggestion they make, their solutions won’t stick and your team won’t benefit from the workshop.

That said, be aware of affinity bias. It’s common to find comfort in those we share commonalities with but comfort doesn’t usually produce unique solutions. And if the person you decide to hire isn’t able to bring unique solutions, then what are you paying them for? At the end of the day, your own intuition is usually your best resource: trust your instincts and hire the person you trust implicitly. 

You’ve Got This

Dealing with breakdowns in communication or addressing how to cultivate an intentional culture can be sensitive topics and therefore produce a lot of anxiety, for both you and your team, but you don’t have to address them alone. Finding the right consultant or coach to lead your organizational development workshop can produce incredible results—but only if you do your share of the work first.

It’s time for a reality check on your data-gathering efforts. You’re probably monitoring basic workforce demographics, and you should feel good about the weekly “pulse” surveys you’ve implemented to broadly track employee satisfaction.

But what about specific departments? Do you see data that would reveal team-wide disengagement before it becomes a retention problem? Do you act on it?

Or even a specific worker, one of thousands of employees… working in a remote country? Is he happy? Does he have any lingering questions or concerns about employee benefits or company policies?

“The biggest handicap I see for HR individuals and HR executives is [not] having real-time data and metrics,” says Patricia Sharkey, senior director of human resources at IMI, a company that provides resources and software to automate distribution facilities across the globe. “That’s the way we’re going to be taken seriously.”

The company uses a homegrown, AI-driven HR platform called Rhonda to engage employees regularly, execute key HR functions such as performance reviews, and collect and analyze data to identify HR hotspots for leaders to act on. “What Rhonda does for HR, and what it brings to this company, is that our CEO has real-time metrics and data that he can make decisions based on,” Sharkey says. 

Senior Executive Media recently interviewed Sharkey about the company’s approach to employee communication and engagement. Read on for edited excerpts from our conversation.

Headshot of Patricia Sharkey

“The biggest handicap I see for HR individuals and HR executives is [not] having real-time data and metrics. That’s the way we’re going to be taken seriously.”

– Patricia Sharkey

Senior Executive Media: How is Rhonda regularly engaging employees and improving employee retention?

Patricia Sharkey: We have weekly surveys that go out, and employees rate, on a scale of one to five, how their week has gone… It’s a simple weekly, like, “Hey, please let us know how you’re doing.” And this goes out to the entire company. If an employee scores a three or lower, they’re going to get contacted by their manager, or by HR, and in some cases by the CEO directly, which is awesome.

I have employees that, every once in a while, I think they want to put a two because they want to talk to [CEO] Rudi [Asseer] because it turns out things are pretty good.

We run weekly reports that measure how many people are responding to us… I receive weekly reports of who’s engaging… If they’re not responding, or we’re getting a low response, we ask the manager, “Hey, how come your team isn’t responding?”

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Senior Executive Media: What else does Rhonda do?

Patricia Sharkey: It’s a big part of the safety culture. We send out safety messages every Thursday. People can talk to us about any safety concerns.

We also have a weekly “hustle” that we send out via Rhonda, which is a newsletter, which reminds employees to respond to Rhonda and lists the employee of the week, by the way, too. So they’re engaged in the employee hustle because they may also see rewards.

Our employees can ask questions to Rhonda, like, “Hey, what’s up with my bank account?” … While we have an HR help desk and different areas where employees can contact us, the most successful is the AI application.

And with AI, it’s been much easier for us to get [performance] reviews back from the employees… This approach has increased accuracy, speed and employee satisfaction because it’s so easy for them to complete.

Senior Executive Media: During the actual conversations within the performance review process, how does the data you’ve collected come into play?

Patricia Sharkey: Managers… talk to their employees about their [self-evaluations] and how, say, for example, the employee gave themselves a three [in a certain area], but the manager scored a four for them.

Then I’m given all that information as well. Not only am I able to see the scores of each employee and what the managers are giving them, the AI also does the average of what the department’s overall score is, which is pretty interesting—great data for the CEO. Because it takes some of the subjectivity out and goes, “Alright, you’ve got your divisional lead, maybe saying he has the greatest department in the company. But look at these overall scores.”

Senior Executive Media: You’re gathering so much data. What are the most important or most interesting metrics that you specifically look out for?

Patricia Sharkey: What I’m looking for, as I’m doing a temperature gauge on my employees: Are they happy? Are they going to stay with us? Through data, you can see patterns of behavior, right? I can tell if someone’s not happy if I see that I’m getting a lot of twos, right? I have to not only do a one-time check in, but now I have to go and say what’s going on? What systemically is happening in this department if I see, you know, in one department, I’m getting lower scores, or people not responding? (People not responding is almost the same thing as giving a low score, in my opinion.) And the question is not about the employee, it becomes about the company and systemic practices. What are we doing well, and what aren’t we doing well?