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Senior leaders criticised over lack of empathy

The research found employees picture themselves staying 2.5 years longer at an organisation when their leader is empathetic

Just 51% of UK employees think their senior leadership team is empathetic, according to software company O.C. Tanner.

Its 2024 Global Culture Report found when leaders do express empathy, just 52% say it’s accompanied by meaningful action and support.

Robert Ordever, European managing director of O.C. Tanner, said progressive organisations often champion the importance of empathetic leadership.

He said: “This approach strengthens connections between leaders and their people, but it’s unlikely to be effective if the empathy is seen as hollow and meaningless due to a lack of follow-up action.

“Empathetic leadership is crucial but it must always be accompanied by a meaningful action otherwise the leader’s words will appear empty and insincere”

The report warned leaders against viewing empathy as just warm and fuzzy words and initiatives that have little usefulness and instead recommended a practical approach to empathy.

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Rachel Lewis, occupational psychologist and managing partner at Affinity Health at Work, said empathy can have a positive impact on employee wellbeing.

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: "Empathetic leadership has been found to positively impact team members wellbeing through increasing their sense of motivation for work, belonging and acceptance in work and trust in the leader.

"Not only does it have a direct effect on team members, but it also likely to contribute to the development of an open, inclusive and psychologically safe organisational environment where individuals are able to disclose wellbeing and mental health struggles; and therefore be better supported to thrive at work." 

The report suggested six steps of practical empathy in the workplace.

These were:

  • Focus on the person
  • Seek understanding
  • Listen to learn
  • Embrace perspectives
  • Take supportive action
  • Respect boundaries

Employees picture themselves staying 2.5 years longer at an organisation when their leader is empathetic, the research found.

However Lewis warned that leading with empathy is complicated.

She added: "While perspective taking in leaders has positive impacts on wellbeing in others, the emotional components of empathy can have negative outcomes, leading to team members feeling more upset and unstable.  

"It is important that leaders are given the skills to be able to empathetic, whilst retaining their emotional boundaries in both recognising and regulating their own emotions." 

O.C Tanner’s Global Culture Report gathered data and insights from more than 42,000 employees, leaders and HR practitioners from 27 countries including 4,818 from the UK.