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Lead with Empathy or Lead with Consistency? Why Progressive People Leaders Are Choosing Empathy

There is always a tension between equality and transparency, and treating people as individuals. This tension is important for organizational health, and, as people leaders, it's one of our primary responsibilities to manage it. Leading with empathy has it challenges, but it's ALWAYS worth it.

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Jan 17, 2024
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Last updated on Dec 09, 2021

Empathy is a value that forward-thinking companies are starting to embrace more vocally. It makes sense. Empathetic business cultures are more collaborative, more adaptive, and have better morale. On a personal level, empathy makes employees feel safe and supported. Coming up on two years of a global crisis, empathy has never been more necessary for a functioning workplace. 

Leadership acknowledges this. Ninety percent of HR professionals and CEOs surveyed say empathy is important, and most believe it drives better business outcomes. Acknowledging its importance, however, isn’t enough. In the same survey, only one in four employees said they believe empathy is sufficient in their organization, and HR leaders are on the front lines of adjudicating this gap. 

Empathy is often understood in the interpersonal sense, in which a person feels heard, supported, and has their needs met. This is often conflated with treating your organization like family or being part of the team. Empathy on a corporate level, however, is more complex than that. To manifest empathy at work, it needs to be woven into daily ways of working, strategic decisions, management styles, and more. Workplaces often pay lip service to optimizing for fair treatment and consistency, while inconsistencies abound in terms of pay equity or general treatment. A manager may want to give one employee flexibility in their hours and not have the backing of senior leadership. Maybe the company emphasizes mental health in messaging, but their healthcare plan makes it financially burdensome to access mental healthcare. Often, their best intentions do not line up with their actions.

The primary shortcoming of empathy as a policy is that it seemingly conflicts with the fair and equal treatment that is the bedrock of workplace cultures. Empathy in the workplace often means approving individual accommodations for specific situations, which is inherently not equal. Then add the fact that not everyone is treated equally from the start. Some people are better liked or are better performers. Some are treated differently due to systemic biases. Some people have better — or worse — managers. Ultimately, these factors should not impact anyone’s experience at work or the empathy they are extended when they need it, but they do.

Then, there are the practical challenges. At smaller organizations, people leaders have an increased ability to provide personalized benefits and support. But, this individual treatment does not scale. Organizations hit a wall where they start behaving with less empathy, for a variety of reasons. The balance between fairness and individual treatment becomes more difficult to manage, especially as the need to maintain legal compliance grows. Demands and individual requests outpace bandwidth of small HR teams. Empathy starts to cost real dollars (and, the suspicion grows of more “bad apples” taking advantage as bonds loosen with ever larger teams).

There is always a tension between equality and transparency, and treating people as individuals. This tension is important for organizational health, and, as people leaders, it's one of our primary responsibilities to manage it. And, it is hard… really, really hard. 

Of course, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Your employees fuel your brand, and often are your consumers and evangelists. Aside from that, they are humans that deserve the best we can give them. So, how do we create policies rooted in empathy when it seems wiser, and sometimes easier, to not bother? 

HR leaders have opportunities to adjudicate the space between the organization’s and the employee’s needs on a strategic level and during times of crisis or life change for employees .  Strategically, three primary responsibilities offer opportunities to operationalize empathy: 

  • Guiding resource allocation (pay, benefits, and time). 
  • Setting policy decisions, either explicitly, like a company handbook, or the precedent set by what’s been done in the past (the spirit and language around leave policies, child & elder care). 
  • Tempering or amplifying the policy instincts of the executive team or founders, who become more distanced from daily operations as companies scale, and therefore less likely to support individualized treatment (particularly for those out of their inner circle.. 

Many of my HR colleagues fight the good fight every single day advancing empathetic policies that promote workplace flexibility, parental leave, and more. 

Aside from high level policy choices, HR leaders are on the frontlines of dealing with employees in crisis. For HR leaders, empathy in action under these circumstances looks like: 

  • Listening and hearing the real need and humanity. Employees often have an understandable fear associated with a potential loss of income or status, so they might be hesitant to speak up and ask for what they need. Attuned HR leaders can see beyond that fear and proactively suggest empathetic solutions. 
  • Providing what they need in the moment. Trust that they know what they need, whether it’s time, money, or flexibility, and provide as much as you can, as soon as you can. Time is often of the essence for employees in crises, and waiting to get the policy 100% right can worsen the situation. 
  • Giving with no strings attached. Empathy in action is doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, not a way to earn loyalty. It’s possible that this person will leave you someday; don’t use your empathy to handcuff them or create a quid pro quo situation. 

We as HR leaders grapple with the tensions in all these daily choices. But what if the goal was to be consistently empathetic no matter the cost? How does the work get done? How do we embed a sense of safety in our culture while enforcing high performance standards? What risk are we taking on in terms of compliance? How has remote work impacted the ability to be empathetic around time and productivity? 

When I ask myself these questions, I often wonder if I’m being overly earnest in centering empathy as an operating principle. Then I think back on my 15+ as a people leader. Every time I have had an employee in crisis come to me, my reflexive reaction was fear. I was afraid of the compliance burdens, of the financial implications, of having to hustle for exec buy-in (again), and of my personal performance as an employee if I left a trail of inconsistent or unsustainable decisions in an effort to help employees on a case-by-case basis. That fear, however, was eclipsed by the needs of the employee in front of me. I knew that I would not feel as if I’d done my job if I didn’t help them in any way I could. Sometimes it wasn’t enough — employers can’t fill all the gaps in our society — but I’ve never once regretted trying. I’ve never once regretted ignoring the fear, the pragmatic reasons, or going to bat to advance their cause. 

None of these instances were endeavoring to create policy, but the one-offs accumulate and form a history. This history engenders trust, sets employee expectations, and creates a playbook for leadership. The need shapes the policy, which then shapes further opportunities for employees to come forward to discuss their needs. This feedback loop is ongoing and adapts over time. Our empathy approach can amplify and change as employee needs change and as our fear of “inconsistency” lessens. 

The best way to amplify empathy is to show up for our employees each time they need us with all the means at our disposal. That’s it. That’s the policy. 

As an HR leader, it’s our Sisyphean task. Rather than fearing that role, I have embraced it as a position of  privilege. We get to make employees' lives meaningfully better or easier during difficult times. Not all People functions are able to do this — sometimes they’re limited by what leadership allows, or maybe they just don’t see this as their role. But, in my experience, especially in the startup space, most HR professionals are in this line of work because they care about people.  And we’re starting to be more vocal about it.

In our community at Troop, HR professionals regularly share stories of how their teams are changing peoples’ lives for the better through workplace policies and cultures that emphasize doing the right thing. In the moment, these instances can feel both isolated and isolating, like you’re going out on a dangerous limb. In fact, though, HR leaders at all levels are actualizing empathy at their companies and supporting each other in doing so. 

Showing up and leading with empathy can be difficult and exhausting. That’s why it’s more important than ever to connect with your fellow people leaders and share your successes and gain strength from each other’s wins. It makes it easier to hold onto the fact that you are doing the right thing, one person at a time, one organic policy update at a time. Together, we keep pushing the rock up the hill. And together, we dare to push harder, knowing that our fellow people leaders are out there doing the same, each and every day. 

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