I've long been a believer in the importance of empathy in management. At its core, management is about relationships, and empathy, of course, is a key element of positive relationships.
This is why I was interested in recent research from Ernst & Young analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of empathy as a management tool.
A study of 1,000 employed US workers discussed numerous positive aspects of empathy in the workplace. For example:
- 86 percent of employees surveyed say it boosts morale;
- 87 percent feel it helps foster an inclusive environment;
- 87 percent feel it inspires "positive change within the workplace";
- 78 percent think it reduces turnover;
- 85 percent believe it aids innovation.
Perhaps most importantly, 87 percent of respondents believe it encourages "mutual respect between employees and leaders."
The study accurately describes empathy as a soft but powerful trait that "helps empower employers and employees to collaborate better and ultimately create a culture of accountability."
Walking the Talk
So far, so good. These are all unquestionably substantive management benefits.
So, what's the downside of an organization promoting itself as an empathetic workplace?
In a phrase, the risk is that if a company claims to have an empathetic culture, it had better (as is often said in the human resources business) "walk the talk." Be what it says it is.
If not, it's an open invitation for management to be viewed as insincere and inauthentic, which quickly erodes troop loyalty. To this point, this study provides additional data.
- More than half of employees (52 percent) feel "their company's efforts to be empathetic toward employees are dishonest."
- Significantly, 47 percent of employees report "a lack of follow-through when it comes to company promises."
The study's conclusions sound a clear cautionary note:
Empathy is a powerful force that must be embedded organically into every aspect of an organization; otherwise, the inconsistency has a dramatic impact on the overall culture and authenticity of an organization.
Vision and Reality
I'm very pleased this research candidly pointed out these downsides to an "empathetic workplace." I can't say I've seen this kind of analysis before, but the findings definitely didn't surprise me.
As noted at the outset, I firmly believe in the value of managerial empathy and have written about the subject myself.
However, it takes a certain kind of manager (a certain kind of individual) to implement this approach effectively. As I suspect virtually all employees can attest, not all managers are naturally empathetic. It may take training, coaching, and time to develop this mindset. If indeed, an individual can develop it.
Additionally, and importantly, the fact is in today's American business world, layoffs, downsizing, and a multitude of initiatives to improve efficiency are common aspects of everyday working life. Such activities can sometimes be critical to running a successful business operation but are also hard to reconcile with an overly empathetic workplace.
In short, if, as an organization, you're just "talking the walk" but not "walking the talk," you're better off not venturing into these more sensitive waters in the first place.
Or at least be sure you have the right management talent and training in place to turn vision into reality.
No matter the endeavor, it's never a good thing to promise something and not deliver it.
Hemmerdinger, J. (2023). New EY US Consulting study: Employees overwhelmingly expect empathy in the workplace, but many say it feels disingenuous. Ernst & Young. https://www.ey.com/en_us/news/2023/03/new-ey-us-consulting-study