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Leadership Done Right: Yes Elon, Empathy Works

Some conversations stay with me. It could be something about the subject, the wisdom of the person I’m talking to, or the timeliness of the discussion. And sometimes, a random event triggers my recall. Case in point: The world recently watched a sad spectacle, as half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees lost their jobs when new owner Elon Musk stepped into his CEO role and promptly went on a firing spree. Apparently, he hadn’t received the memo from other successful executives that empathy works as a leadership style.

Twitter is obviously grappling with numerous business issues. But it’s stunning to think this company’s future depends on a singular person in a position of great power who simply decided to slice the workforce in half. And that was only his first week on the job.

Why Empathy Works

This behavior reminds me of a #WorkTrends podcast discussion I had with Gary DePaul, a brilliant leadership consultant, researcher, and author. We spoke in June 2021 — more than a year into the pandemic — when everyone was grappling with workplace challenges. The Great Resignation was gaining steam, and leaders were scrambling to redefine work life and organizational culture in ways that would keep talent onboard.

Over the course of our conversation, Gary explained what makes leaders effective in the long run. Among the qualities that give leaders staying power is (you guessed it) empathy. Seems like the opposite of Elon Musk’s approach, doesn’t it?

Whatever you think of his business acumen, Elon has never been an empathetic leader. It doesn’t seem to be one of his goals, to put it mildly.

This posture is already damaging his relationships with employees. And it doesn’t seem to be garnering trust among Twitter’s business partners, either.

Days into this acquisition, major advertisers like GM decided to put their Twitter budgets on hold and marketing strategists began advising clients to spend elsewhere. It seems Elon’s lack of empathy is already costing him dearly.

Empathy Works Because it Builds Common Ground

Will an empathy void ultimately matter to the success of this $44 billion deal? It probably depends on your view of the people/profits equation.

In our podcast interview, Gary made it clear where he stands, and I’m inclined to agree. Empathy is absolutely crucial for leadership. It’s also a necessary through-line for every organizational tier. Whatever your title, you won’t win the hearts, minds, or cooperation of your team members unless you make a genuine effort to connect with them on a human level.

Gary said that openly acknowledging your weaknesses as well as your strengths is a powerful way to break the ice. It doesn’t need to be complicated. For instance, at your next Zoom meeting, when you ask everyone to introduce themselves by sharing a bit of personal information, don’t skip yourself.

Empathy Also Builds Alignment

Self-awareness leads to humility, which in turn, leads to empathy. When you honor others’ right to be at the table, you can expect a better response from them. That’s the reason why empathy works.

Think about it. When you make an effort to connect with others, pay attention to them, and factor their input into your decisions, others will be drawn toward you.

But when your actions make it clear that your business revolves around you, why would your team sign-up for that? When you send a message that says you make decisions in a unilateral, top-down way, you inhibit the free exchange of ideas where engagement and innovation thrive.

No wonder we see phenomena like “quiet quitting” eroding modern work cultures. When people feel like it’s not worth the effort to work hard or go the extra mile, why should employers expect that kind of commitment?

The Elon Musk Twitter story still needs to unfold. But I think we’re already learning some valuable lessons. I believe Gary DePaul would agree.

Authority is best served with warmth. In other words, leaders should be willing to admit they’re going to make mistakes. They should also be willing to admit they’re on a learning curve — particularly when they’ve just taken over a company.

Anyone in charge of a team can and should work on their leadership style and recognize the importance of communicating with different types of people on their terms. (Hint: Maybe email isn’t the best way to deliver life-altering news.)

A Key Takeaway from Gary DePaul

Studying leadership is Gary DePaul’s career passion. When we spoke, his latest book was What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care?  It speaks to these core questions:

  • What does it really mean to lead?
  • What does this job really require?

Gary’s bottom line:  Leadership is a continuous, ongoing vocation. So if you’re heading into the corner office (metaphorically or not), don’t assume you’ve arrived. You’re just getting started.

 


EDITOR’S NOTE:

For more insights on leadership and other work-related topics, explore our #WorkTrends podcast archives. You’ll find a treasure trove of great guests and ideas.

Also, be sure to subscribe to Meghan M. Biro’s LinkedIn newsletter,  The Buzz On Work, her personal take on what’s happening at the intersection of people, tech, HR, and work culture.

A New Era of Workplace Safety: Prioritizing Psychosocial Health

For too long, the workplace has been viewed as a mystical place where we bring a version of ourselves that is unbreakable. It’s a version of ourselves that powers through every obstacle, even if it takes a toll on our health. Sadly, it’s a version that is essentially unsustainable. How often have we seen an employee get lauded for “going above and beyond,” even when we know that what we’re saying is just code for working through illness. Or forsaking personal commitment? Or working well beyond reasonable and safe hours?

That attitude–celebrating the workaholic, to put it bluntly–is an example of how the conversation around mental health has been too narrow. It’s especially been too narrow when discussing mental health in the workplace. Also, until now, occupational health and safety management was focused almost exclusively on physical safety rather than psychological health. That changed this past summer. An international standard was issued in June to provide a structural framework to help businesses manage psychological health and well-being in the workplace.

In essence, the ISO 45003 Psychological Health and Safety at Work guidelines have two goals:

  1. Lay out global standards for organizations to create and administer an environment where the psychosocial well-being of employees is as clearly defined and cared for as their physical safety
  2. Offer a helpful baseline for HR professionals across industries to evaluate how effectively their organizations are providing a psychosocially healthy atmosphere, without the need for in-house specialists with deep expertise in mental health

For HR and training leaders, it’s important to recognize:

  • Three common mental health and wellness issues that organizations face
  • How the new standards for workplace safety could lead to a more psychosocially healthy work environment

1. A Stigmatized or Nonexistent Support System

The pandemic highlighted the lack of supportive environments for employee mental health at an organizational level. It also shed light on unsustainable and unfair workloads and untimely or ineffective recognition practices. Because of these issues, employees have very little time during the workday and very few, if any, tools to take care of themselves psychologically or emotionally. In a 2021 survey that covered 46 countries, 89 percent of respondents said their work-life was worsening. Eighty-five percent said their well-being had declined, and 56 percent said their job demands had increased.

A strategy for change: Discussing mental health openly at work starts with a clear organizational strategy. You need to create an environment of psychological safety. That means a workplace where employees feel comfortable being themselves and discussing emotional and mental concerns. The ISO guidelines go a step further. They ask top leaders to remember the important role they play in supporting these conversations. They also ask leadership to set a culture of protection from reprisal or judgment for employees who speak up.

2. A Diverse Workforce Has Diverse Mental Wellness Needs

More than nine out of 10 respondents in a 2021 survey felt that mental health should be a focus within the company culture, up from 86 percent in 2019. The increase shouldn’t be surprising when you consider that between 2019 and 2021, mental health was cited as an increasingly prevalent reason that employees left their jobs. Overall, 84 percent of respondents felt that at least one workplace factor negatively impacted their mental health. Further, the problem is most acute among Millennials and Gen Z.

The numbers were disproportionately higher among younger workers and members of underrepresented groups. Women, minority groups, remote workers (in some organizations), and the younger generation joining the workforce are all prone to feeling excluded from blanket policies and run-of-the-mill pledges of inclusion.

A strategy for change: Sure, companies have increased investment in employee mental health over the last decade. The global mental wellness industry grew nearly twice as fast as the global economy from 2015–2017 alone. But the quality and reach of these programs are what matters. ISO guidelines call out the need for organizations to consider the diversity of the workforce and the needs of particular groups around a psychosocially healthy workplace.

3. Burnout Remains Pervasive and Prevention Is the Best Cure

Meet the new mantra, same as the old mantra: Prevention is the best medicine. Yu Tse Heng, a researcher who uncovers ways to humanize workplaces, puts it this way: “It starts with employers, to protect employees from becoming resource-depleted in the first place. And it’s also on the employer to provide the resources necessary to support employees’ mental health.” The employee’s responsibility, meanwhile, is to try and understand where their burnout stems from and to craft a way to get out of it.

Even pre-pandemic, the results of implementing mental health programs at work spoke for themselves. In a 2019 study conducted by Deloitte and the Australian Institute of Health & Safety, the ROI for workplace mental health programs yielded $1.62 for every dollar invested. That’s just in one year. For companies with programs that had been implemented over three years, the median ROI was $2.18 for every dollar spent.

A strategy for change: Self-reflection and self-care are crucial to recovering from or preventing burnout. But the ISO reiterates the importance of employers implementing and maintaining support systems in the workplace for burnout prevention. For example, having trained personnel on staff who can take charge of these programs further mitigates the risk of psychosocial damage.

A Significant Opportunity for Organizations Ready for Change

As mental health and workplace safety become increasingly important and open subjects, employers are at a crossroads. Traditional solutions just won’t cut it. A vacation does not erase the dread of returning to a draining work environment. In fact, American workers last year left an average of 33 percent of their allocated paid time off on the table. At the same time, they reported a 49-minute increase in the average workday.

Organizations seeking a transformative solution to employee mental well-being should consider activating the new ISO guidelines. They present an opportunity for companies to take a fresh look at:

  • How they view employee mental health
  • The role their leadership is playing to change the company culture around mental health
  • The effectiveness of their mental health strategy for today’s changing workforce

As with everything around workplace safety, you can be superficial with fixes and apply Band-Aids to mask the issues. Or you can choose to step up and transform how you approach workplace mental health.

Image by Austin Distel

Avoid the Workplace Talent Cliff [Podcast]

The talent cliff is a phenomenon where businesses lose employees at a rapid rate. It isn’t a new problem, but it regularly appears in times of crisis, such as the 2008 stock market crash, and of course, the 2020-2021 pandemic. Because of the present WFH lifestyle, people are reconsidering their options, keeping their eyes open for new and better career opportunities.

Meaning the talent cliff is a constant threat to business success, especially right now.

Many organizations are in a position to suffer losses of key people who fill critical roles aligned with the organization’s overall business strategy. Finding and filling these roles quickly is essential but not always possible, especially when it’s a job candidate’s market. That’s why it’s important to stay ahead of the game and focus on preventing employees from leaving, rather than scrambling to hire talent later.

Our Guest: Jennifer Thornton, Talent Strategy and Leadership Expert 

 

The special guest on this week’s episode of #WorkTrends is Jennifer Thornton, a sought-after business strategist who has clocked over two decades as an HR professional. She takes an unconventional approach to building workforce development solutions for companies, and her impressive expertise in talent strategy and leadership helped drive the rapid growth of her consulting firm, 304 Coaching.

I asked Jennifer why some businesses wind up staring over the edge of the talent cliff, while others don’t. And the heart of the matter is: Businesses who don’t value employee satisfaction will likely suffer the most.

“When a business starts to take off, they start throwing all their resources into increasing their revenue, opening up new markets,” Jennifer explains. “But what they don’t say at the same time is: What do we need to do for our talent to ensure that they can keep up the pace with our growth?”

“After a company continues to grow, the leaders usually get super directive, and the good people don’t want to work for someone highly directive. So they leave. Then the people you’re left with are the, ‘Yes sir,’ ‘Yes ma’am’ kind of folks. And they’re not telling you the truth. And then all of a sudden the productivity–it just goes straight down–off the cliff!”

How Can Businesses Avoid the Dreaded Talent Cliff?

I asked Jennifer about what leaders can do to avoid the talent cliff, or at least curb more employee losses. She explained that leaders need to provide psychological safety. They need to give employees space to honestly express ideas, and leaders need to be prepared to respond in a supportive manner.

“Psychological safety allows people in the workplace to be honest, to be truthful, to fully embrace who they are without judgment, which creates productivity and innovation,” Jennifer says. “When you open up the conversation, people feel valued … They feel like it’s safe to bring ideas to you because you don’t just shut them down.”

“I would encourage your listeners to think: How do you think about opening up that conversation so there is psychological safety and so that the business can move forward with the truth?”

The talent cliff is a threat to all businesses. But if you prioritize team needs, it will help you to retain valuable employees and amplify overall business growth.

I hope you enjoy this episode of #WorkTrends. And I hope it communicates that the key to a successful business strategy is valuing the people who are helping you to achieve it. You can learn more about this topic by connecting with our guest, Jennifer Thornton, on LinkedIn.