Empathy, Trust, and Compassion: The Trifecta of Superior Leadership

Unlike the doom-sayers who are becoming convinced that AI and other technologies will replace human work, Heather E. McGowan and Chris Shipley see a future where human potential is supported and augmented by these emerging innovations. But humans can only leverage the tools of technology and optimise performance to the extent that they are engaged and thriving at work, argue the authors of 'The Empathy Advantage: Leading the Empowered Workplace'.
Empathy, Trust, and Compassion: The Trifecta of Superior Leadership
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Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from The Empathy Advantage: Leading the Empowered Workplace by Heather E. McGowan and Chris Shipley. Copyright © 2023 by John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold. 
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Unlike the doom-sayers who are becoming convinced that artificial intelligence and other technologies will replace human work, we see a future where human potential is supported and augmented by these emerging innovations. Technology can expand our cognitive and creative capacity, just as the tools of prior generations enhanced human physical capabilities. Tools are tools; they need humans to be useful. 

Yet, perhaps ironically, too many organisations maintain and optimise their technology tools, without so much as a nod to the need of their human users. This neglect has sparked an epidemic of burnout, exacerbated by a pandemic that left 75% of our workers feeling more stress than any prior time in their lives.

It would be wise, then, to fine-tune our human workforce, just as we optimise the tools they use. But where to start? 

Humans can only leverage the tools of technology and optimise performance to the extent that they are engaged and thriving at work. That engagement builds on a foundation of empathetic leadership, critical to creating a high-performance working environment, one that nurtures and supports its workforce and empowers them to be fully human while fully embracing a new generation of tools.

The best leaders reinforce unlimited time off policies and build trust by ensuring team members do take time away from work to rest and recharge. 

The foundation of such an environment is trust, which must be integrated into every aspect of the business. For example, perks used to mean the little extras that sweetened an employee’s compensation package. An espresso machine in the break room, a generous vacation allowance, ergonomic office chairs, an office with a view. Often, the perks of the job came in lieu of pay. (All the free burgers you can eat for a minimum hourly wage and not enough hours to make a decent living. But, hey, burgers!) Many times, perks bestowed status commensurate with title. (A parking space with your name on it, Employee of the Month!) In almost every instance, perks were earned and meted out as incentives to work harder and harder. 

In the new era of human-centered work, perks take on a very different role. They are the symbol of trust. When employees are offered unlimited vacation days, for example the company is saying to the worker, “Take the time you need. We trust that you will get the job done, and you won’t leave your collaborators in the lurch.”  In some organisations, unlimited vacation can turn into no vacation as workers forgo time off, succumbing to social pressure to put in more hours. The best leaders reinforce unlimited time off policies and build trust by ensuring team members do take time away from work to rest and recharge. 

Read more on the Forum Network: Rewiring the Firm: Algorithmic management and the future of work by Jeremias Adams-Prassl, Professor of Law, University of Oxford
Jeremias Adams-Prassl offers an in-depth analysis on how labour markets are being impacted by automation and artificial intelligence.

It’s not enough, though, to pin unlimited time off as a corporate benefit; you have to create a culture that respects and encourages rest and restoration.  Analyzing data from over 125,000 employees, the 2017 HR Mythbusters report,  conducted by HR software provider Namely, noted that high performers take on  average 19 days of vacation and average performers take only 14 days. Still other research has shown that workers who have unlimited vacation time are less likely to take time off than those who have work with fixed paid time off policies, and  more likely to work when they do take time away. A separate Namely study found that people who have the benefit of unlimited time off take an average of 13 days  per year, compared to the 15 days taken by those working under traditional  vacation plans. In other words, the policies of unlimited vacation must be met with the culture that actually supports that time off because at the end of the day, in the Human Value Era, a rested and recreated human is your best source of  value creation. 

It turns out, Americans are terrible at vacation. Of the 38 countries that make up the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States is the only country without a paid annual leave policy. Our aversion to vacation hurts our potential, and leaders are starting to realize it – and do something about it. We interviewed the chief strategy officer of a publicly traded  biopharmaceutical company who told us that despite her company’s pressing mission  to develop therapies to treat Covid-19, they forced a mandatory one-week shut down in late 2020, sending all but the most essential personnel home. Why? Because the company knew their people were burnt out and that without a break they would not have the ability to see their products through and meet their customer needs. If this organisation can take time during this period of urgency, we can all take some time away throughout the year. We will all be better for it. 

 Hire smart people, empower them, trust them, then get out of their way. 

The decision making we give to employees about everything from how to do their jobs to when to take vacation is a measure of trust, and trust is the currency of the new workplace. Trust also gives back time as leaders. When you don’t trust, you micromanage. When you micromanage, you do your job and theirs. That is highly inefficient, exhausting, and demoralising to your people. Hire smart people, empower them, trust them, then get out of their way. 

The role of the empathetic leader, then, is to create an environment where trust flows multilaterally throughout the organisation. The building blocks of that trusted environment are: 

  • Clear and consistent values; a culture that is well articulated, well understood, and well celebrated. 
  • A foundation of psychological safety that enables risk taking, discovery, learning, and, most importantly, the safety to dissent. 
  • Unwavering integrity, vulnerability, and empathy that levels relationships between leaders and workers and among workers themselves. 

To build this foundation, you need to tap your cognitive and emotional states of empathy. And to firmly cement it and really lead in this new era, you must call upon your compassion. Indeed, empathy without compassion leaves us to wallow in “all the feels” of the people around us, sometimes even clouding our judgment and stifling progress. Compassion drives us to act, and act in the best interest of the collective organisation. 

Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter write clearly about this in Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way (Harvard Business Review Press, 2022). Compassion, they write, is less about doing than about asking, How can I help? “Leadership is not about solving problems for people,” they assert. “It is about growing and developing people, so they are empowered to solve their own  problems.”

By asking your workers what they need, you drive them to consider real solutions to their challenges for themselves, while letting them know that you are supporting them. And while every instinct of a leader is to jump in and solve tough problems, Hougaard and Carter believe it is equally important to back off. “Remember,” they write, “that in many instances people do not need your solutions; they need your ear and your caring presence.... Taking ‘non-action’ can often be the most powerful means of helping".1 






  1.  “Gartner Says U.S. Total Annual Employee Turnover Will Likely Jump by Nearly 20%.”

Generative Artificial Intelligence tools such as ChatGPT, have taken the world by storm. As technology advances and new tools emerge, it is essential that governments, education institutions and businesses understand how to leverage and adapt to these technologies and how to govern them to ensure they are beneficial for humanity and the environment.

To learn more, attend the 2023 International Conference on AI in Work, Innovation, Productivity, and Skills

And read also OECD's report on Promoting Health and Well-being at Work

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