Why a hybrid-working world needs more leaders with empathy
Leaders who show empathy get better commitment from their people and better results – if their work culture supports them, says Deshani Ganegoda.
Melbourne Business School's recent Insights Report: Trends and challenges in learning and development 2022, based on interviews with senior learning and development managers, found that many of the top leadership attributes that organisations believe are successful for hybrid working are connected with empathy, or the ability to be sensitive to another person's circumstances and perspective.
That finding is no surprise to Associate Professor of Management Deshani Ganegoda, whose research on organisational behaviour has included the beneficial effects of empathy in the workplace.
"Empathy has long been associated with higher levels of innovation, engagement, retention, inclusion and work/life balance, which all drive performance," Associate Professor Ganegoda says.
"It's the difference between commitment and compliance. When you show empathy, people repay it and are more likely to feel they have a stake in your organisation’s values and purpose."
The Insights Report also found that leaders were struggling to balance caring for their team members with ensuring that their output contributes to growth – however, Associate Professor Ganegoda says the two objectives don't have to be mutually exclusive.
"Empathy leads to high performance. It doesn't detract from it," she says.
"It's not a trade-off you need to make, although a lot of people who don’t practise empathy might think that's the case."
Commitment versus compliance
Because hybrid working makes monitoring individual team members more difficult, Associate Professor Ganegoda says it's better to build an environment that favours commitment to the organisation over compliance with traditional expectations.
"Empathy often leads to more collaboration and learning among team members, and their stronger commitment can lighten the load for leaders," she says.
"One of the main benefits of greater commitment is that leaders don't have to look over their shoulder and monitor team members as much.
"With compliance, where employees just do what they're told, you spend more energy on monitoring their every move. It’s better to build an environment that favours commitment over compliance."
However, empathetic leaders need support from the organisation in order for their approach to become the norm and for its benefits to take hold, Associate Professor Ganegoda says.
"When empathy is part of an organisation's purpose and values, its leaders know they won’t be treated like an anomaly who doesn't belong when they try to accommodate different preferences and perspectives."
Creating a culture of empathy
Associate Professor Ganegoda has several tips for leaders trying to listen, understand and adapt to the needs of people who are working on- and off-site in hybrid mode.
"Leaders need to focus on communicating clearly and organising regular meetings and touch points to avoid people feeling left out," she says.
"While people tend to be naturally empathetic in face-to-face situations, it requires more awareness when people are working remotely and meeting online, where it’s harder to read people and connect."
Leaders also need to role-model empathy for it to spread across an organisation – and that begins with displaying it to themselves.
"When you’re feeling down or burnt out, it's really hard to empathise with somebody else because you’re more focused on preserving your own energy," says Associate Professor Ganegoda, who who presents on our MBA programs as well as the New Leader Development Program (online).
"To be an effective manager, you need a level of self-awareness. If you're reaching your limits, take time off to manage your energy levels."
Associate Professor Ganegoda says empathy might not be a natural part of every leader’s skill set, but that’s no barrier to acquiring it.
"The good thing is that empathy is a skill that leaders can work on. You don't have to be born with it. Once you’re supported and aware of its importance, you demonstrate it more."
To learn more about the trends and challenges facing learning and development leaders in 2022, download our latest Insights Report.