The Importance of Empathy
November 13, 2006
“When people in an organization feel angry and distressed, a leader… can at least listen with empathy, show concern, and make a goodwill effort to change things for the better. Whether or not that effort solves the problem, it does some good emotionally…. simply acknowledging their point of view, then apologizing if necessary or otherwise seeking a remedy defuses some of the toxicity, rendering destructive emotions less harmful.”
Some of the CEOs that I have worked with could have used that lesson. I remember a particular time where I sat through a long and interesting all-hands meeting where the CEO decided to address the concerns of the employees. The company was going through a time of bad morale, and the employees had recently completed a “satisfaction survey” that told the executives how bad it really was.
Unfortunately, the CEO didn’t think it was that bad. He started his speech with the following statement (which I’m paraphrasing from memory):
“I realize that there have been some questions about things recently. Some of them came back in the recent employee satisfaction survey, and it seems that people aren’t all happy right now.
I told the management team that they need to keep me from being defensive. Because when I read most of these, I’m not going to say that my first reaction is ‘that’s just plain wrong.’“
Unfortunately, this was a situation where many of the employees had genuine concern – morale had been dropping like a stone for months, and the employees’ concerns were going ignored (layoffs occurred not too long after this). Some of the senior managers understood, but the CEO was simply out of touch.
And, unfortunately, where a heart-felt and genuine attempt at listening to the concerns would have done a lot of good, all the speech did was to stir up the rancor of the employees. And it made an already bad situation worse.
A management tip: when people are unhappy, attempt to understand their plight, listen, and apologize. Even if you think you’re right, self-righteousness doesn’t do anybody any good.