Empathetic CEOs said to accomplish more: reports

CEOs with the ability to care deeply are said to have an edge as executives. (HM Solutions)

Empathy is becoming a buzzword for CEOs this year as a trait to have and to build within their organizations.

Surveys and reports point up its importance as a “humanizing” tool that improves employees’ and companies’ performance and sets the right overall tone.

A workplace empathy study by Businessolver found that 87% of CEOs agree that a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy, and 43% strongly agree. The study also said:

  • 8 in 10 CEOs, employees and HR professionals agree that an empathetic workplace has a positive impact on business performance.
  • Majorities in all demographics of employees responded that empathy motivates workers and increases productivity.
  • 9 in 10 employees are more likely to stay with an organization that empathizes with their needs.
  • 8 in 10 would be willing to work longer hours and take slightly less pay for a more empathetic employer.

Empathy has the power to re-engage, empower and motivate employees again, said Businessolver’s chief strategy officer, Rae Shanahan. “A more empathetic, engaged workforce can reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and decrease turnover. Customer ratings and sales can also increase with more employee engagement. All it takes is more empathy.”

Ways that employers can show staff they care include reaching out to them consistently and with sincerity, spending one-on-one time with them and listening to them about work issues, said Kerry Alison Wekelo, managing director at Actualize Consulting.

“Empathetic behavior shows people they are being heard and therefore appreciated,” Wekelo said. “That, in turn, can boost morale and productivity.”

Empathy allows for effective communication, “which is part of the foundation successful companies are built upon,” said Matt Eventoff, founder of Princeton Public Speaking. “People want to feel heard and that their time is valued. In my experience an empathetic CEO is one who can rally teams, creates trust and motivates team members.”  

Daily actions like active listening and focused attention when someone is speaking “send a valuable message as team members feel that a CEO can identify with them and they will often tell other team members, with that reputation building internally,” Eventoff said. “This takes focused attention as time pressures and the sheer amount of communication a CEO has to deal with continues to increase.”

Empathy “requires foresight and anticipation: we cannot possibly know exactly what another person is or will be feeling or wanting, but we can imagine it,” said Orit Shifman, CEO of OSR Enterprises AG. “To truly meet the needs of another person, we must anticipate those wants and desires so that we can address them in advance. That is empathy, and it’s fundamental to user experience.”

While saying it’s impossible to understand the intricacies of the CEO role without inhabiting it, Egon Zehnder said there is one key emotion that can help understand some of the common challenges related to the human side of taking the top role: empathy. A survey by the advisory firm found:

  • 50% of U.S. CEOs agreed that the transition process required an intense period of personal reflection, yet 54% said that finding this time for themselves was more difficult than expected.
  • 28% of internally selected CEOs felt fully prepared for the job versus 38% of external hires.
  • Externally appointed CEOs find it easier to connect with peers, find time for reflection, manage the impact of the role on their personal lives, manage stress and engage with stakeholders.

“Empathy in a CEO is more than desirable, it is essential for the success of the enterprise,” said Clifford Backscheider, CEO of Talent Development Works. “Though we are often reluctant to admit it, we are more emotional beings than rational ones and employees expect to have their humanity recognized and they wither when it is not.”

The CEO “who understands and easily acknowledges something of the inner life of employees gains credibility in their eyes and can more easily persuade them to do whatever the tasks at hand are,” Backscheider said.