Treasure Champs is a BBC TV children’s programme which teaches children how to manage their feelings. In one episode, one of the characters, Barry (a blue triangle with pink eyebrows) is sad about the result of his football match.

“We lost,” says Barry.

“It doesn’t matter!” says Kari.

“It was my fault. I let all the goals in.”

“I don’t understand why you’re so sad. Just forget about it.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not? It’s just a game.”

“You’re not showing a lot of empathy, Kari. It means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

“Your shoes won’t fit me, Barry.”

The concept of empathy – showing insight into and understanding of the feelings of others, was first encapsulated in the German word “Einfühlung,” coined in the late 1800s, which might broadly translate as “feeling into”. As definitions go, Barry’s one seems spot on. It is about projecting yourself into somebody’s mind to feel what they feel. And as the episode goes on to tell its young audience, understanding other people’s feelings is important. But not everyone gets it, do they?

I am currently reading Rory Stewart’s memoir ‘Politics on the Edge.’  Stewart was a UK member of parliament who at one time reported to Liz Truss (the infamous UK leader who recently became the shortest serving prime minister in British history after being kicked out of power after only 49 days). He recounts telling Truss one morning that his father had just passed away. He wrote that she ‘paused for a moment, nodded and asked when the 25-year environment plan would be ready’. Clearly empathy was not Mrs. Truss’ greatest strength – the fact that she survived less than two months as Prime Minister suggests that this was not her only weakness!

I find her behaviour unbelievable but not surprising. I come across many leaders completely lacking in empathy as if it is an optional extra, they can dish up on a whim, when feeling inclined to or when they remember. The management consultant Lance Scretan sums this up “Leadership is not so much about technique and methods as it is about opening the heart. Leadership is about inspiration – of oneself and of others. Great leadership is about human experiences, not processes. Leadership is not a formula or a program, it is a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the hearts of others. It is an attitude, not a routine.”

While empathy in leadership is not a new notion, today’s world of work suggests that it is more crucial than ever. According to a Harvard business review article on work, pre-pandemic “managers used to be selected and promoted based on their ability to manage and evaluate the performance of employees who could carry out a particular set of tasks. But three disruptive, transformative trends are challenging traditional definitions of the manager role: Normalization of remote work, automation, and changing employee expectations. These three trends have culminated in a new era of management where it is less important to see what employees are doing and more important to understand how they feel. To be successful in this new environment, managers must lead with empathy.” 

And employees expect it. In Botswana we have seen that since the pandemic, companies have expanded their support to employees in areas like mental health; and the relationships between employees and their managers have started to shift to be more emotional and supportive. According to the Garner study, knowledge workers now expect their managers to be part of their support system to help them improve their life experience, rather than just their employee experience.

Empathy is not easy, but it is worth it. In fact, in that same survey, analysis shows that managers who display high levels of empathy have three times the impact on their employees’ performance than those who display low levels. Employees at organizations with high levels of empathy-based management are more than twice as likely to agree that their work environment is inclusive.

I do not know for sure what was going on in Liz Truss’ mind when she opted to ask Rory Stewart when he would deliver on his work assignment instead of taking a moment to acknowledge his loss and grief; but I think that for her, like many managers using empathy at work may have felt intimidating or at least uncomfortable.  Many managers do understand empathy conceptually – I can see that when I coach, and we have discussions; but I see their confusions and uncertainty about how to use it as a management tool: ‘How do I create a trusting relationship with my direct reports? Is caring acceptable at work? Are these questions too personal? What do I do if it becomes too personal?’    It goes against the deeply ingrained assumption that we should keep work and life separate. 

The big problem is the error in thinking that empathy gets in the way of accountability, it doesn’t. If anything, it aids it. The two go together, and striking a balance between them is crucial for creating a work environment where employees can thrive. To maintain accountability, clear boundaries need to be set. The only way to set clear boundaries that everyone agrees on is to understand where your employees are coming from mentally and physically and make sure they can work well together – and you obviously need empathy for that.

The greatest nonsensical response I often hear from managers is where they think that empathy conflicts with the employee contract, the essence of which is that people are at work to do a job – as if it is possible to separate the emotional state of the employee and their readiness and preparedness to carry out their function.

I think of the quote by Jim Rohn, “As a leader, you should always start with where people are before you try to take them where you want them to go.”

Liz Truss take note!