Leadership   //   November 29, 2021

Empathy in leadership is vital, but managers must learn where the line is

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In an evolving virtual and hybrid world, leaders want to be empathetic toward the members of their teams, but can they go too far?

There is no doubt managers have had to improve their soft skills during the pandemic, but what happens when they start to show their own vulnerabilities during online meetings?

Does it make you a better leader if you reveal your own weaknesses, or can it undermine trust and make the employees who report to you feel a little uncomfortable?

It’s a fine line between being empathetic and sharing too much information, acknowledged Carly Ash, head of heart at influencer marketing agency Influencer which has offices in New York, London and Kiev.

“Senior executives need to be showing up, guiding, supporting and empowering their teams. Sometimes it can have a negative impact on status because leaders don’t want to be perceived as being unable to handle difficult situations,” she said.

Employees can certainly respect a manager who does display a human side.

Ash was diagnosed with breast cancer during the pandemic and decided to disclose her experience and feelings with her team. She believes her colleagues showed her more respect because they appreciated her sharing such a personal story.

“It is important to be professional, but also to show that you are human. Managers should choose what to do depending on the situation,” she said.

Indeed, as the work environment changes managers are being urged to find a middle ground to ensure they retain their status and professionalism while being empathetic.

Ernst & Young LLP recently conducted its empathy in business survey, tracking more than 1,000 leaders and employees in the U.S. Some 54% of workers said they had left previous jobs because their boss was not sympathetic to their struggles at work or in their personal life. 

It does appear many companies and their managers are still not getting the balance right. 

The EY survey revealed that 46% of employees felt their company’s efforts to be empathetic toward staff were dishonest and insincere.

Everyone needs to practice self-awareness and be courteous to create positive social and workplace relationships and help with stress management.
Rebecca Fox, director of membership at the Association for Project Management in the U.K.

Meanwhile, just how vulnerable bosses themselves should remain a grey area.

“Showing your vulnerabilities as a leader can be empowering but, that said, it is the manager’s responsibility to lead and guide their teams. This requires setting boundaries and ensuring others set their own,” said Jody Johnson, head of people at Clarity PR in New York. “You have to know where the line is between being open and human and being unprofessional. It is the organization’s responsibility to train their managers in these skills.”

Rebecca Fox, director of membership at the Association for Project Management in the U.K., said people skills impact project success, and being overly empathetic can be risky. She believes an empathetic approach must be balanced with effective communication to help the team achieve its goals.

“You can be both supportive and willing to make tough decisions,” said Fox. “Empathy should go both ways. Employee well-being is hugely important, but if it’s used as a free pass for people to vent endlessly and make sarcastic remarks, it becomes counterproductive. Everyone needs to practice self-awareness and be courteous to create positive social and workplace relationships and help with stress management.”

The ability to share and understand the feelings of others at work is not easy to get right in a virtual world. 

A report by digital work hub Qatalog reveals that people are less patient about colleagues being slow to respond to messages than they would be in person, and 10% of workers feel their efforts go unnoticed when working virtually. 

The findings also show that in a fragmented working environment it is easier for employees’ faith in managers to be eroded, hence why leaders need to get it right when it comes to showing empathy.

Qatalog founder and CEO Tariq Rauf believes managers who get empathy wrong risk creating an atmosphere of suspicion and frustration.

“The modern workplace is putting pressure on our ability to empathize,” he said. “You used to be able to walk into the office and talk to people to get their perspective and absorb everything going on around you. Now, it’s the opposite: the workplace is highly fragmented, people are working in the dark, and it’s hard to put yourself in others’ shoes.”

Yet employees want to work in a culture where they can help colleagues who are struggling.

Derek Irvine, svp client strategy at human applications software company Workhuman, said it is understandable why some managers may worry that they are going too far and workers might respect them less.

“It may seem counter-intuitive and it can take managers longer than others to have the confidence to show vulnerabilities,” he said. “Being open, vulnerable and authentic isn’t harming today’s workplace if you get it right. It means higher engagement and more motivation.”

3 Questions with Robb Wagner, founder of creative studio Stimulated Inc.

You’ve just written a book: “The Stimulated Method,” which is like a playbook for hybrid working for creatives — what are the key takeaways?

The biggest takeaway is that you don’t have to grind your life away to get high-level creative work done at scale. You don’t have to work yourself morning, noon, night and weekends to have a successful creative studio or agency. But you do have to be open to fundamental mindset shifts and counterintuitive thinking. I even go so far as to tell people that take my course that they should leave if they can’t open their minds enough because it’s not going to work.

One of the best hybrid practices in my book, for example, is to “stop assigning work to artists.” When people read that statement, they don’t understand what it means, but here’s what they learn next: If you stop assigning work and let your hybrid workforce choose the jobs that really interest them, you’ll get better work. That’s an ‘aha’ moment where people come to realize they should embrace the counterintuitive.

What are the hybrid pitfalls employers should watch out for when planning for hybrid success?

The big pitfalls are: choosing the right workflows and choosing the right workers. Anyone can go onto a freelancer site and get one creative job done, but people don’t stop to consider what that singular task entails. You start by sourcing talent, scheduling calls, explaining jobs, emailing links and setting permissions to share assets. Then you move onto managing files, searching emails, reviewing work and communicating feedback over multiple channels. Now, multiply that times numerous jobs or projects, and it’s easy to see the complexity of hybrid work at scale. Trying to piece together a workflow using off-the-shelf solutions will prove to be inefficient, costly and exhausting for most creative teams. I learned this the hard way, which is why I ultimately developed my own comprehensive hybrid workflow solution and methodology.

What advice would you give to employers looking to sustain successful hybrid teams? 

I learned how to build a hybrid creative team through hard lessons. There are two kinds of people you need for a successful hybrid creative team because the qualities you’ll want in your remote workforce will differ from what you need in an in-house team. And I’m not talking about overall work quality — that’s a given. When vetting remote artists, my consulting clients are surprised to learn that the most important attribute I recommend looking for is the ability to follow written instructions. I have to constantly check my own team on this because, while it’s easy to admire shiny portfolios, you’ll set yourself up for frustration if remote artists can’t follow written instructions. 

By the numbers

  • The average U.S. office capacity in October was 25% — the highest since the pandemic started.
    [Source of data: Robin’s Return to Office report.]
  • While 50% of 2,005 Londoners polled said they would go back to the office if asked to, 46% would rather quit than go back into the office full time.
    [Source of data: Momentive – formerly SurveyMonkey – Hybrid Work in the U.K. study.]
  • 63% of 2,000 respondents surveyed from the U.S. and U.K. said they find it harder to build trust with colleagues online than they do in person.
    [Source of data: Qatalog’s Trust Gap at Work report.]

What else we’ve covered

  • The widespread adoption of the hybrid model is resulting in growing demand in suburban locations both for flexspace and local offices as people look to avoid commutes.
  • Not all employees returning to the office have confidence in their companies’ post-pandemic workplace strategies. We take a look at the reasons why.