Future of Work: Empathetic Leadership

April 13, 2022

The workplace of the future has always been best described and predicted by science fiction writers. Arthur C. Clarke and David Gerrold’s eerily accurate predictions of wireless communications are impressive, but they touch more on the technological advances rather than cultural. I’m less sci-fi and more contemporary business leader - I can’t tell you precisely how flying cars will affect the 2060 commute. What I can better predict is how leaders will shape successful companies today, tomorrow and in the coming decades.

To that end, I want to look at three emerging trends that promise to be focal points of how employers of choice might shape future workplaces for the better. Most of these already exist in various forms, but woven together could be powerful levers to get the best work while engaging and retaining the best people available. 

The first of three we will explore this week is Empathetic Leadership. Future installments will discuss Skills Investment and Internal Mobility.

Empathy through Leadership

Empathy and business haven’t always gone hand-in-hand. Popular culture business references like “always be closing” from Glengarry Glen Ross or idioms like “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” are sticky wickets in our synapses that are almost impossible to dislodge. The ruthless business person is celebrated and admired. Empathy is rarely discussed as a pillar of strong business practice at business schools or in boardrooms. However, it may be one of the key ingredients in turning around the employee engagement gap that has driven the great resignation. Caring about what employees think and knowing who they are as people have emerged as a powerful approach to retaining top talent and may be as important as knowing your key metrics and ROI. 

Sincerely ask your employees, “How are you doing?” If you are engaged and listening, their fears, aspirations, desires, and needs, should become apparent. Keep that door open! Schedule frequent opportunities to check in. Demonstrate how empathy looks in a business setting. Set out to mix an empathetic approach to discussions around metrics and continuous improvement. Remember: The goal of these conversations is to create a safe place for open conversations about what is working for your team members and to give you a deeper understanding of what makes them thrive personally and professionally.

Empathy through Flexibility

Flexibility is taking many forms. Mobile, tech-savvy talent is dispersed across the globe. They work in different ways for different employers, building a worldview and cultural awareness as they advance their careers. Many parents enjoy working from home allowing them to experience their kids' childhood while saving child care dollars that can be invested in college funds. Companies are building-out new types of office spaces focused on breakout rooms for face-to-face collaboration as team members join the meeting on Zoom. Retreats, group business trips, virtual business trips, extended breaks, sabbaticals, training and education intensives, 4 day work weeks, family support hubs are all part of the on-going work Hybrid 2.0 experiment. We are all trying to figure it out.

Empathy through Purpose

With all the changes in how we work, flexibility as an employer dictates who joins us at the table. Allowing flexibility requires trust. At the heart of trust is purpose. Employees who know their purpose can be trusted to get their work done no matter when and where it's done. If you are an active, empathetic and engaged listener, you should start to understand the myriad reasons your teammates bring their skills to work. While these drivers will vary from person to person, purpose is what we all want and why we need to work. Illuminate your team’s purpose and you’ve succeeded in increasing trust, engagement, and motivation.

The key is to be intentional about trust, serve the individual & where they are in their life, and put purpose at the center of how a team member sees their contribution to the company.

Empathy through Culture

Yeah, yeah, yeah… It may be a cliche at this point, but culture actually does eat strategy for breakfast. As important as it is to have culture driven from the top, it’s become clear to me that culture lives or dies at the team level. The team is where your culture is realized. It’s the critical point of execution. We all have ambitions for engaged employees who bring their all to every work task, but that can all be derailed or unrealized if the people leading our teams aren’t in sync. 

The practical takeaway; not only is it important to identify and hire the right team leaders, but supporting, training, and nurturing these nuanced leadership skills are critical to a thriving culture.

In the next installment, I’ll tackle skill investment. How do we build systems to keep people learning and growing in their careers? How do we encourage development of soft skills as well as the technical? How do you decide when to hire and when to train?

In the meantime, I’m interested in how you’ve seen empathy embodied in your work life. How do you model it with those on your team?

cory@salmelatalent.com - 218.590.4448

Photo by Tom Parkes on Unsplash

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