Why Is Your Boss Asking About Your Feelings? Inside the Empathy Management Trend

One of the most sought-after management skills right now is empathy—in other words, taking a genuine interest in co-workers’ lives and what makes them tick. Empathetic leadership has long had corporate disciples, but the concept has become a bigger focus of management training and executive coaching as businesses seek ways to bolster staff worn down by the pandemic’s stresses, or at least show they are trying.

Appreciating co-workers’ points of view and understanding their struggles, some executives say, leads to more engaged, happy and productive staff. Many workers say that is lacking. In a February survey of 15,000 US workers by Gallup, a quarter said they strongly agreed their employer cared about their wellbeing, half the percentage who said so in the early months of the pandemic.

Ticketing company Eventbrite Inc.

began an empathy-focused leadership development program in 2020 that all managers can take. It includes lessons on active listening, showing vulnerability and building trust with employees, developing what Chief Executive Julia Hartz calls a “critical business strength.”

Cisco Systems Inc.

says it is building leader and team-coaching courses that weave in empathy. In one course, participants spend eight hours learning about each others’ strengths and personal styles, as well as how to better understand and trust each other.

A “Power Skills” training program at Zurich North America, a unit of Zurich Insurance Group,

Includes a six-hour section on empathetic decision-making. In one session, managers practice drawing out candid feedback from employees by asking, for instance, “How are you getting on with the learning management system?”—a style of asking whether that gives employees room to say they’re having difficulties. Employees who complete the section get a digital badge for “Empathy” that they can add to their online professional profiles or resume, the insurer says.

Before starting the program last year, “people would assume that empathy was something that either you had or you didn’t,” said Laura Rock, Zurich North America’s human resources chief, who says 400 employees have completed the course. “We fundamentally disagree with that as a prime.”

Some executives and leadership coaches say the feelings-first management approach can rankle employees who prefer keeping their emotional lives outside the office. Worrying too much about employees’ feelings of risks standing in the way of constructive criticism, some say.

Data from LinkedIn shows that the number of member posts on the site that included terms like empathy, empathetic, compassion and caring doubled from the first half of 2019 to the first half of 2021.


What role should empathy have in the workplace?

Eddie Eltoukhy, 36, joined Pear VC, a Menlo Park, Calif., venture-capital company, as a partner in April and says the company’s culture of nurturing startup founders was a key reason he chose it over other companies that were recruiting him. A part-time consulting gig with the company showed him how the team worked together.

“They were incredibly authentic and genuine,” Mr. Eltoukhy says of the partners’ habit of asking startups about their concerns or how the company could help them. Both the pandemic and a hot job market made working for a caring and supportive employer important, not just the money, he says.

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