The Empathy Failure Among Leaders

As a chief executive, it’s difficult to acknowledge deficits in my leadership ability. After all, CEOs are all powerful, impactful, inspiring leaders, right? They wouldn’t be CEOs if they weren’t. But it turns out, data indicates that many, if not all, top leaders have a significant deficit that keeps them from being most effective. 

That’s why senior leaders need to retrain their brains. 

UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner found, after 20 years of lab and field experiments studying powerful people, that the influence of power leads individuals to be more likely to act on impulse and take risks (which can be good for CEOs in driving business success), but also less empathetic (which can be bad for leadership). 

Similarly, Ontario’s McMaster University neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi studied the brain stimulation of powerful and non-powerful individuals and found that powerful people exhibited an impairment in “mirroring,” a neural process that causes people to subconsciously mimic another person’s non-verbal behaviors. Mirroring, psychologists say, is especially helpful in building a rapport with others. Also, as it involves literally taking the posture of another, many psychological experts say mirroring is fundamental to empathy. 

This brain deficit is not entirely our fault. Because of the imbalance of power in most situations we engage in — particularly among our employees — people tend to mirror us as a barometer to gauge and modulate their behavior rather than vice versa, giving us fewer opportunities to practice. Until eventually we stop mirroring others altogether, creating what Keltner called an “empathy deficit.”

Through data analysis from Businessolver’s annual State of Workplace Empathy Study, we continue to see that CEOs recognize the empathy deficit, even as they’re unsure what to do about it. According to our 2021 data, 68% of U.S. CEOs say they fear they will be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace, and 70% say it’s hard for them to consistently demonstrate empathy in their working life. 

And by the way, employees have noticed: 75% believe the current level of organizational empathy is not sufficient — a number that’s remained largely unchanged in the six years we’ve fielded the study. 

And given the recent rise in CEOs pushing employees to return to the office, the deficit will only continue. 

At a time when our workforces and communities are looking for empathetic leadership, leaders’ empathy deficit manifests in such a way that some executives genuinely can’t adopt the perspective of others. 

For example, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon recently stated that he expects employees back in-person by the end of the summer. He said publicly, “[People] don’t like commuting, but so what? I’m about to cancel all my Zoom meetings. I’m done with it.” 

Meanwhile, when Netflix’s Reed Hastings was asked about the benefits of flexible workplaces, he replied, “I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together in person is a pure negative.” 

Then there’s Goldman Sachs’ CEO David Solomonm, who described remote work as “not the new normal. It’s an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible.” 

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This “new normal” versus “aberration” dichotomy brings the empathy gap to the forefront, as employees from Apple said the workspace policy changes makes them feel “not just unheard, but actively ignored, [and] it feels like there is a disconnect between…the executive team…and the lived experiences of employees.”

So, how can CEOs bridge the empathy gap and make progress? With flexibility. 

Leaders have to accept that the past year has provided unique flexibility for employees. They should embrace, rather than resist, this as the way for organizations to succeed in the future. 

Indeed, 88% of employees say organizations that allow employees to work from home during the pandemic are more empathetic than those that don’t. And 86% of employees want their company to offer remote work after the pandemic. 

But is sacrificing in-person collaboration in favor of flexibility good for business? In a word, yes.

Flexibility expands employee productivity. We found that 71% of remote employees believe the quality of their work has improved during the pandemic. And 66% say they are more productive at home than in the office.

Flexibility also increases employee loyalty and lowers turnover. Indeed, 58% of workers say they would “absolutely” look for a new job if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position. Furthermore, our data shows that 88% of employees are willing to stay with an empathetic employer, and 74% will work longer hours for one. 

Ultimately, to attract and retain top talent, maintain worker productivity, and support a positive organizational culture, CEOs should look at their recent successes with flexible work as an opportunity to retrain their brains, embrace flexibility, and take workplace empathy to new heights.

With 33% of employees unengaged at work and 51% actively searching for a new job, the race to recruit and retain talent continues across U.S. workplaces. As a result, organizations are turning to their HR leaders to attract the best and brightest through better benefits programs.

Under the direction of Businessolver president and CEO Jon Shanahan, the benefits technology provider has established itself as an industry leader that’s helping organizations nationwide tackle this effort thanks to solutions like the first-of-its-kind MyChoice Recommendation Engine. Top employers, from Sephora to national dining chain Bob Evans, have turned to Businessolver’s technology to provide a more engaging, personalized benefits experience to their workforces.

A former HR professional with experience at IBM, among others, Jon was frustrated with the state of solutions on the market. He wanted to develop a service that met all the needs of the modern benefits administrator, leading to the start of Businessolver in 1998. Nearly two decades later, Businessolver consistently drives year-over-year growth, employs nearly 600 people, and has offices in Des Moines, Denver, Charlotte and Chicago, with plans to continue geographic expansion.  

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