Empathy is all in vogue. Driven largely by the Great Resignation, the mass exodus of about 40 million American workers since April of last year, the world is talking about the need for more empathic leaders. A growing compendium of research is disproving that these departures have anything to do with spoiled Z's and Millennials, too much Covid money in the economy, a new dot-com boom, or a singular refusal among all age groups to ever return to an office. In fact, a majority of the resignations could be traced to autocratic, micromanaging and narcissistic bosses and the toxic environments they tend to create. Now, the same pundits who have, month after month, incorrectly predicted an end to the big quit have reluctantly begun to admit that maybe soft skills, like empathy, matter after all. But as good as it is to see so many finally getting it right, they are still thinking about things the wrong way. See, far too many of these "experts" are talking about empathy and a drive for results as if they are mutually exclusive -- as if there needs to be a choice between them. But there doesn't.
This wrongheaded thinking is the result of a 100-year-old hiring model utilized by boards, HR leaders, and large, white-shoe establishment-type recruiting firms. It's a model that places priority on gregariousness (extroversion), and shows a bias for control, height, and excessive self-confidence (perceived charisma). But the problem is, none of the traits valued by this historic model are correlated with long-term leadership success. Neither is intellect, another darling of this crowd. It's a model that believes accountability for results and empathy must be chosen between. The model itself excludes empathic leaders for want of micromanaging narcissists -- a group of largely ineffective bosses who have, in large part, fueled the Great Resignation. So, why, in the face of evidence to the contrary, has this hiring model survived for so long?
It has thrived for two primary reasons. First and foremost, because the leaders it has produced are oriented toward blaming others for any mistake (including their own), so it's been little problem for these leaders to escape, unscathed, despite poor results and other calamity. Second, removing a senior leader requires a more senior leader, a board, a partner at a white-shoe firm, and others with something to lose to admit they made a mistake. Often admitting the mistake is more costly than simply living with it; and so, these people choose the latter. So, the model perpetuates itself. But the fact remains that accountability and empathy never were mutually exclusive in the first place. In fact, the best leaders offer both -- in spades. True, caring leaders know that it is more than possible to behave with empathy while holding others accountable to deliver results. And they do so, day in and day out. They know that empathy is not about being nice to people all the time. It's about being aware of, understanding, and respecting the feelings of others -- win or lose. The biggest difference between an empathic leader and one of the narcissists promoted by the historic HR model can be seen when the desired results of the business are not achieved. Watch for the narcissist to throw a tantrum, to blame everyone but him/herself, and to engage in insults and other ad hominem attacks. Meanwhile, the more empathic leader will let others know that they let him/her down, but do so in a way that does not detract from the dignity of the person they are addressing.
These leaders know that results matter. They know that business is a game in which a score is kept. They are deadly serious about achieving the objectives they are responsible for. But they likewise know that results can be more sufficiently achieved through kindness than through cruelty and by making it about others rather than by making it about themselves. They include those they lead in decision-making and place value on what they have to say. They recognize and reward the achievement of others. And they believe that the mental health of those who follow them is not something to be poked fun at but something to be cared about and cared for. They deliver results by caring for others. And they know better than to destroy trust over something like a missed objective.
So, if your small or medium enterprise is struggling to keep good people, it's likely because your leaders are the wrong people. If you've believed, like many have, that delivering results and caring for others is an either/or proposition, change your thinking, and then change those you entrust to lead your team. Choose caring, empathic leaders. They are, for good reason, all the rage right now.