The Power of Empathetic Leadership

There’s a comedy skit by the duo Key & Peele titled “Text Message Confusion” that hilariously illustrates how easily the tone of casual text communication can be badly misinterpreted. The scene commences with Keegan entering the kitchen holding his phone, preparing coffee. He vocalizes as he types a follow up text message to Peele in a tone of frustration. Keegan’s demeanor, along with the message he is trying to convey, is evident to the audience. The scene cuts to Peele (in another location) who is engrossed in the video game he is playing (while partaking in cannabis). Upon hearing his phone notification, Peele is surprised that Keegan was texting him. He expresses regret for missing Keegan’s previous messages and concludes with a nonchalant and inadvertently dismissive “whatever, I don’t care.” These five words trigger Keegan’s anger. Throughout the conversation, both of them continue to misinterpret the tone of the messages, with Keegan reaching a frenzied anger and Peele remaining stoned and distracted until they “agree” to meet at the bar, with Peele promising, “The first round’s mine.” Keegan misconstrues this as a violent confrontation, arriving at the bar with a bat studded with nails, while Peele simply meant he would cover the cost of the first round of drinks.

In my previous post on remote work productivity I touched on some of the potential limitations and inefficiencies we face with digital collaboration tools like video meetings and text-based communication — a big one being the absence of non-verbal, contextual and extrasensory cues that humans have evolved over millennia. Contextual information enriches communication with tone, mood, meaning, subtext, wit and subtle sarcasm. Perhaps most importantly, it facilitates empathy.

Elizabeth A. Segal, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University says, “When we communicate online we miss the contextual and extrasensory cues that we take in when we are with someone in person.”

Leadership is challenging. It requires more than being a manager who can drive results from employees and achieve business outcomes. In the servant leadership tradition founded by Robert Kiefner Greenleaf, a leader is someone who prioritizes the needs of others over their own. They reject the ubiquitous cultural influences of greed, pride, envy, are motivated by selflessness and believe that people have intrinsic value beyond their contributions as workers. They are committed to the growth and success of their followers, and measure their own success by their employees’ successes.

Arthur C. Brooks is the Parker Gilbert Montgomery professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School, where he teaches courses on leadership, happiness, and nonprofit management. His approach to leadership fuses the spiritual idea that a key component of happiness is service to others and to something greater than the self. He leads the Leadership and Happiness Laboratory at the Harvard Kennedy School, where they teach that all great leaders should be happiness teachers.

In his 2023 commencement speech to The Catholic University of America, Brooks said, “Use your ordinary work, no matter what it is, as a way to love others. Understand this well, there’s something holy, something divine, hidden in the most ordinary situations and it’s up to each one of you to discover it. Dedicate anything you do, big or small, significant or insignificant, to the good of others.”

The informal recorded talks of the late Dr. Richard Alpert, or as most of his fans and followers called him, Ram Dass have had a profound influence on my life. As my father battled ALS and succumbed to the disease in 2008 at 56, I found myself searching for meaning. Like millions before me, I found Ram Dass’ widely distributed recorded talks from the 1970s through his death in 2019 that blended radically diverse spiritual perspectives and self-effacing “far out” counterculture hippy humor to be the right message through the right “lens” at a the right time. Alpert, a psychologist, psychotherapist, and former Harvard professor in social psychology had a unique ability to play with topics and concepts in his rambling, often repetitive lectures that were rationally absurd yet useful and deeply meaningful, all while subtly winking that he was well aware of their absurdities and inherent contradictions — that he was just pulling at the threads of an ever-unraveling cosmic joke, without the faintest hint of darkness or cynicism. Constantly confessing his neuroses, it was as if he was always hinting that he was play acting the part of the “phony holy”, completely full of it, but that it was all deeply useful and true on, as he described, “one plane of reality” or another.

One of his stories has has continued to resonate with me over the years when I think about work…

Ram Dass recounts a time that he attended a meditation retreat where the participants sat in silent prayer for a full week. As they were settling in to their sleeping quarters before the long silence began, he asked his bunk mate the common question, “What do you do?”

The man said, “I’m the Vice President of industrial loans at a bank,” and Ram Dass inquired about his presence at the meditation retreat. He shared that he held the same position back in the 60s but had a realization, “I want to drop out of the rat race, live in a commune, and write poetry.” Eventually, he left his job and life behind and embarked on years of wandering around the world, living a spiritual life. He recounted, “I was walking down a street in San Francisco, sporting a beard and a sweater, when I ran into the President of the bank. He expressed his amazement at our chance encounter, praised my past performance, and asked if I would consider returning. So, I pondered… why not? I bought a tie, cut my hair, shaved, and returned to work.”

When Ram Dass inquired if his experience upon returning was different from before, he responded, “It was entirely different. Previously, I was engrossed in my role as Vice President of industrial loans, interacting with potential borrowers. Now I go to this place, and I hang out all day with these beings and the business we do together is industrial loans. But what it is, is beings meeting beings.”

If you’re humbling yourself and trying to make your life’s work part of your spiritual path, anything may be your vehicle, including your day job. With everyone around you engrossed in the drama of their roles, and without a strong, consistent foundation of spiritual practice, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama too: to treat the people as the roles they play, as cogs in a bureaucratic machine, or a means to an end rather than, as Immanuel Kant said in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, “ends in themselves.” It’s easy to lose sight of the reality that it’s just beings meeting beings. But whether you’re cleaning the floors at the hospital, helping patients at the hospital or the CEO of the corporation that runs the hospital, the little things matter. This is especially true of how we conduct ourselves in our communication with the people we collaborate with and lead.

Written communication is tricky, and with so much of our professional collaboration now via email or chat, it’s ever more difficult to to maintain mindfulness that there’s a being at the other end of the wire. People are stressed and under pressure. Messages are often short and hurried. As a result, the tone of business communication has become increasingly less formal, and in many cases, especially when attempting to be professional and to the point, our communication may come across as brusque, curt, or may be misinterpreted as angry, demanding or condescending. A terse message by a busy superior has the potential to ruin a person’s day or demoralize a team, especially when feedback is otherwise rare or lacking.

Younger generations who grew up communicating in short messages are more likely to make abrupt language seem more friendly by using exclamation points and emojis. Older people and especially men are more likely to view this style as weak and non-professional. Since the rise of widespread instant messaging use there has been lively debate about rapidly evolving writing styles. Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguistics professor explains in the New York Times the double standard that women often confront, “Use too many exclamation points and you won’t be taken seriously, use too few and you can come off as cold.” There’s a perception among most people that direct language seems more professional, but when a senior leader or colleague consistently communicates with short, direct language, they are more likely to come across as a negative, unpleasant person, whether they are or not. It’s unnecessary to pepper your text with exclamation points and emojis, but there’s a balancing act required. Unless you have the time to write enough to express your tone and intent, an exclamation point, positive phrase or even the occasional emoji is an incredibly efficient insurance policy against misinterpretation.

I’ve been working professionally via digital written communication for a quarter of a century and had the good fortune of working with some inspiring leaders who used positive language and (gasp!) even the exclamation point! The fact that they took the time to provide a bit of upbeat language or appreciation reflected their inspiring personalities. These leaders were highly empathetic people who built loyalty and trust on the teams they served. People loved working for them and would go the extra mile because they felt valued.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with quite a few folks who come across in their writing as rather miserable impassive human beings. They are difficult to communicate with in writing, even when they are agreeable in person. I’ve always been curious as to why this is the case. Perhaps they are simply following the traditions of their educational upbringing, or the writing style they observed in others they’ve worked with and for. Even if they have “gotten results” with their flat “no bs” approach, they are not inspiring leaders. If you can’t muster the will to adopt the “new writing style” then you can simply type something like, “Much appreciated,” “Appreciate your help,” “Let’s make this a success,” or at bare minimum, “Thanks.”

There’s a misconception that being blunt and direct makes you seem more professional, gets results and even increases your chances of promotion. It’s simply not the case. It’s possible to write and communicate in a professional style while preserving a sense of empathy and lifting up people in small ways. Yes, studies show that terse flat writing is perceived as having a more authoritative tone, but that points to a long tradition of authority and bad management. Being positive will not diminish your chances of promotion, moreover, many highly successful (and sometimes quite wealthy) people are passionate, upbeat and their confident attitude is contagious. My philosophy is simple. Life is short. If you follow the average, you’re going to spend 90,000 hours, or a third of your life working. Why be miserable? Why make the people around you miserable? Mood follows action. Consider your work as an opportunity to teach happiness. Sprinkle in a touch of humility and appropriate light humor. Laugh and try to bring a bit of joy to all these other human beings you work with. Compassion is a positive and contagious energy.

Phone conversations and video conferences are much richer mediums that afford more reliable interpretation of mood and intent based on the tone of voice, inflection and laughter. On the other hand, group conference meetings often find people suffering from “Zoom fatigue” and it can be challenging to have a naturalistic dialog where subtle visual cues in a three dimensional setting would indicate who’s about to speak. Video conferencing and telephony systems don’t handle multiple people speaking simultaneously well, leading to the, “sorry, go ahead,” “no, you go ahead” game. Some of us are better than others at extemporaneous verbal communication. Some folks naturally speak with a flat affect or accent that may be misinterpreted as rude or callous — certainly something they cannot help.

Contextual and extrasensory cues contribute to empathetic communication. For example, in a 2017 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, participants rated physicians displaying empathetic nonverbal behavior as more empathetic, warm, and more competent than physicians displaying non-empathetic nonverbal behavior, adjusting for mood.

Nonverbal communication involves conveying information through facial expressions, gestures, touching, physical movements, posture, body adornment, and even the tone of voice. To effectively interpret body language, it is essential to observe baseline behaviors and watch for changes. Universal behaviors and cultural norms are also crucial aspects to consider. Most reasonably well-socialized people analyze and decode clusters of several, simultaneous nonverbal cues every few seconds. A frustrated person may tap their foot, cross their arms, and tightly squeeze their biceps. These clusters may cross over and include a variety of nonverbal categories.

This rich and often subtle “data” is essential to empathetic communication among colleagues, and is especially important for leaders and managers to effectively connect with and engender trust in their teams. Great communicators make eye contact, actively listen, and acknowledge people and their input — all of which is difficult to impossible to do in a remote work environment.

And if the spiritual angle isn’t important to you, guess what? Empathy will make you happier, get better results and improves the bottom line.

Ernest J. Wilson III and his colleagues at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism spent three years interviewing international business leaders on what attributes executives must have to succeed in today’s digital, global economy. Surprisingly, empathy was among the most consistent responses, and many reported that it was the most important.

It’s easy to see why empathy is important to effective leadership. The ability to step into another’s shoes and understand their situation and challenges is a powerful trait that builds trust, faith and cohesion that is essential to the success of teams and organizations.

Tracy Brower, Ph.D. writes in a January 2022 issue of Forbes that, “Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, but it is taking on a new level of meaning and priority. Far from a soft approach it can drive significant business results.”

Unfortunately, a “soft-skill” like empathy is an often overlooked criterion in management and leadership staffing. According to a 2015 survey of college graduates who went on to occupy professional positions, empathy is most lacking among middle managers and executives, roles where it’s needed most and that affect large numbers of people in an organization.

Empathy is also one of the fundamental nuances that differentiates management and leadership. Scholar Warren Bennis outlines some of these distinctions in his book, “On Becoming a Leader”:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people

While we often think of management as a subset or task of leadership, many management roles are process rather than people centered, but any experienced manager — or collaborator for that matter — will tell you that leadership is a critical part of effective management of successful teams.

Neural activity associated with empathy has been observed in primates, dogs, and even mice.

One of the many challenges that remote-work employees have faced since the pandemic is adapting to a mode of collaboration that makes a professional setting that may have been alienating even more so. Employees report that they desire greater flexibility, non-wage perks and work-life balance, but they often fail to recognize the intangibles that can mean the difference between a job they begrudgingly tolerate for a paycheck and a career with a sense of real purpose and impact in an organization in which they feel they belong. I’ve worked for leaders who were so inspiring and gave me such a sense of purpose that I would have worked for free.

Empathetic leadership plays a critical part in something we hear a lot about these days: employee engagement. Engagement impacts organizational success and profits. According to Gallup’s 2023 annual employee engagement study, the US is experiencing the lowest ratio of engaged to “actively disengaged” employees in the U.S. since 2013. Companies with disengaged employees are less profitable. Companies with high employee engagement experience 23% higher profitability. Companies with low employee engagement see up to 43% higher turnover rates.

The HR consulting firm Businessolver notes in their 2023 State of Workplace Empathy Report that “67% of CEOs think of themselves as more empathetic than before the pandemic, but HR professionals perceive CEO empathy levels to be the lowest ever.” Across their multi-year study, HR professionals surveyed reported a 23% drop in their perception of organizational empathy, a 16% drop in their perception of their executive leadership’s empathy and a nearly and a ten percent increase in mental health issues.

One theme emerges consistently from their data: employees have significantly different work experiences than their leadership.

But it’s safe to say that the people didn’t change — the modes of interpersonal communication did. The pandemic didn’t cause strange long-term side-effects where executives and management leaders woke up one day slightly psychopathic. On the contrary, given that their self-reported perception of their own “empathy” is diverging from the perception of those that they lead, we can posit that most of them are limited by the same situation, working remotely in a lower fidelity information bubble where the absence of valuable feedback on staff morale leads to a false sense of optimism about employee engagement. As I pointed out in my previous post about remote work productivity, with a 20% less efficient work force trapped in a cycle of low quality communication and more staff meetings, overworked leaders struggle to make the time to invest in regular coaching sessions and company wide video conferences.

The explanation is simple: the vital signals from leadership are not being received by the corps. Isolated in their own remote work bubbles, employees don’t feel valued, seen, or acknowledged if the only communications are occasional emails from senior leadership buried in an inbox among hundreds of other automated system notifications, announcements on organizational process changes and other organizational chatter.

Senior management and the c-suite no longer have the luxury of “reading the room” or making a surprise appearance on the second floor to get a “beat” on the ground through informal conversations with a random sample of staff. Regardless of how flat an organization may be structured, there’s always hierarchy where information is funneled up, metrics diluted, problems downplayed and grievances omitted from daily or weekly reports.

In a remote work or hybrid work model, managers and leaders have to adapt and take extra time to adjust their approaches to communication to effectively convey vision, authenticity, empathy and compassion toward those they lead. Here are just a few tips on how to bridge the empathy divide with remote teams:

Use video for important updates.

Leadership coach Craig Dowden suggests utilizing videoconferencing extensively for conveying important updates. While email may appear to be a quicker choice, it lacks the crucial elements of tone of voice and body language, which are essential for effective communication. Additionally, CEOs and senior executives can foster a genuine interest in their employees’ experiences by hosting “Ask Me Anything” sessions, which can be a great idea.

Keep it real.

During video meetings or phone calls, it is advisable to stick to simple expressions of understanding. Many times, individuals in leadership positions tend to overcomplicate matters or attempt to resolve issues on behalf of others. Opt for straightforward language instead. Its impact is greater than you may realize, provided that it is sincere. Consider using phrases like, “I hear ya,” or, “That does sound challenging,” or, “I understand your perspective.”

Don’t jump right down to business – demonstrate compassion first.

Invest just a few minutes at the start of every meeting to acknowledge each person, ask how they’ve been doing and listen. It’s remarkable how powerful this simple, and frankly obvious technique is to engage people and set the tone for a productive open conversation.

Be human. Tell a story.

Leadership consultant Marci Marra emphasizes that sharing personal anecdotes can enhance a leader’s relatability, authenticity, and compassion. You don’t have to give a world-class TED talk. Even recounting a quick anecdote from your past that reasonably relates to the topic at hand goes a long way to make you relatable. The emotional impact of storytelling is more memorable than the actual words spoken. Through personal narratives, individuals display vulnerability, fostering a sense of connection and empathy. This ability to empathize allows us to imagine ourselves in someone else’s position, prompting us to consider, “How would I feel in that situation?” Our stories hold the potential to promote greater diversity and inclusivity.

Proactively demonstrate that you care

As you encounter the individuals you work with, take time to get to know them and take note of the things they may care about: their kids, their pets, a major upcoming event. Bill Clinton was well known for having an incredible memory for names and details from the thousands of people he met, and could remember names and those details on a later date — practically a superpower. For us mere mortals, it wouldn’t be “strange” to keep a few notes on people who report up to you in your organization. Something as trivial as sending people a thoughtful note, or even an email celebrating and acknowledging even a small success could mean the difference between an employee who feels like an anonymous cog in a machine, and a human being who feels seen, valued and a part of a greater cause.