Whatever Happened to Empathy in Leadership?

Amid the rush to "reopen the economy" is a lack of empathy for those doing it.

Posted May 13, 2020

 Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels
Leadership empathy matters, but is too often in short supply.
Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Empathy is an under-the-radar leadership attribute. It’s not traditionally associated with successful management (I don’t think I heard the word mentioned once in all my MBA studies), but both intuition and hard data support its value in business. Studies have shown empathy can be a positive driver of overall management performance.

As it’s a subject I’ve written about on several occasions, it feels conspicuous by its absence in today’s national dialogue on the challenges of "reopening the economy" in a pandemic.

Stress forces hard choices on management even in the best of times, and these times are far from that. They contain arguably unprecedented levels of uncertainty and stress for business, and that uncertainty and stress ripples down to the workforce. Yet empathy for that workforce seems in short supply. 

The Washington Post empathy score. As we used to say in the corporate world, “tone at the top” matters. A lot. Like a waterfall, the attitudes of senior leadership cascade down through an organization (or a country). Which is why it was significant that a recent Washington Post analysis of more than 13 hours of President Trump's coronavirus press briefings found that only four-and-a-half minutes were spent "expressing condolences for coronavirus victims"—far under 1% of the total time. In short, while these briefings covered in great detail a wide variety of topics related to the spread and treatment of the disease, empathy for its many victims rarely took center stage.

Pawns in the supply chain. One of the most tragic environments in the coronavirus crisis has been the meatpacking industry, where shop floor workers do hard gritty jobs in close proximity. There's ample tragedy to go around: As plants have opened and closed and reopened amid outbreaks, it's been heartbreaking for ranchers and farmers who have had to euthanize thousands of animals, stressful for plant managers who have had to make wrenching decisions and at times become ill themselves, and downright dangerous for workers. Nearly 12,000 coronavirus cases and 50 deaths have already occurred in the industry. A presidential executive order deemed the plants essential to the nation's food supply, and thus required them to stay open. Often lost in the chaos is the plight of meatpacking workers (whom Upton Sinclair first famously called attention to more than a century ago in The Jungle), who are now pawns in a much larger game, doing hard bloody work for low wages. In a sense, they're forced to choose between life and livelihood. 

Political footballs in the air. One of the more high-profile industrial disputes has been the battle between Elon Musk and the state of California. Musk's aggressive desire to get his Fremont electric vehicle plant reopened has run squarely into a governor, Gavin Newsom, whose primary focus has been protecting the state's population while proceeding cautiously on the economic front. Musk's response has been to call the lockdown "fascist" and threaten to move his operation to another state. But in all the copious national media coverage of this industrial heavyweight prizefight, one issue I've never seen discussed is how the actual plant workers feel about the matter. My suspicion? Some desperately want to return to work and some are desperately anxious about it.

Times of severe economic stress expose fractures and fault lines in a society. While our political and business leaders push to jumpstart the economy, the likelihood is that growth will be tepid so long as consumers are (understandably) wary and the demand side of the curve is weak. No matter the objective data is daunting: At the time of this writing, more than 1.4 million Americans have been infected and 84,000 are dead (numbers five times higher and two times higher, respectively, than any other country in the world). Everyone wants the economy back. Of course. We all do. The question is: How best to go about it amid world-class levels of infection? It involves discipline and logistics... robust testing and tracing and protecting medical professionals... and it also involves understanding the emotional and psychological pressures that workers are facing, and will continue to face.

I think I have an insider's understanding of business pressures. I was in Fortune 500 corporate management for 24 years, and I get that business is tough and competitive, with relentless objective metrics against which one needs to deliver results. But these are unique times. And you can be sure of one thing: When people signed on to be baristas at Starbucks, or to work in an electric car plant, or on the floor of a meat processor, they didn’t bargain on placing their health in daily danger. They didn't bargain on perhaps having to make a lady-or-the-tiger decision between livelihood and life.

Given these realities, workers deserve empathy, and lots of it, not scoldings, threats, emotionally-tone-deaf demands, or being shamed into feeling they're unpatriotic if they're reluctant to expose themselves to an invisible enemy.

Economist and professor Robert Reich has described today’s American economy as a “harsh form of capitalism,” marked by increasing inequality, unlevel playing fields, and a badly frayed safety net.  Studies have shown that somewhere between 50% and 75% of American workers live "paycheck to paycheck"—hence the pressing need to return to a potentially hazardous work space.   

Good thoughtful leaders will appreciate today's complexity and tradeoffs. We're deep into uncharted waters; there are no blueprints, no guarantees, and high stakes. All the more reason to have real empathy for the American workforce, and the struggles and choices they face moving into a brave new economy.