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Go Beyond Empathy Training -- Actually Care

Go Beyond Empathy Training -- Actually Care

by Jeremie Brecheisen, Rachel Maglinger and Jennifer Robison

Story Highlights

  • Feeling what others feel is good, but caring improves performance
  • Most of the scientifically validated needs of employees and followers relate to care
  • Caring leaders don't try to automate humans -- they invest in their success

Empathy training is trending.

The theory behind it is sound. Leaders and managers who understand their employees' feelings can create more meaningful relationships with them, and Gallup data prove that strong relationships can improve business outcomes.

While this is a positive development, empathy means feeling what another person feels, or perceiving their context. As beneficial as that ability is -- and it truly is -- that alone doesn't necessarily improve business performance.

To improve performance, Gallup finds, leaders and managers need to do more than empathize. They need to care.

In fact, some of the best executives and people leaders Gallup has ever studied aren't very empathetic, they don't easily detect other people's feelings and needs, and it takes effort (occasionally grudging) to understand employees. One of them -- Gallup executive coaching client and Trinity Health COO and Executive Vice President Ben Carter -- is actually nicknamed "The Hammer."

Nonetheless, Carter is an extraordinarily successful leader because he cares a great deal about his employees. "The most effective way for me to make [direct reports] successful is to deeply understand their strengths and advocate for them," Carter says. "That started ongoing connection and communication, which always comes back to 'how do you feel and how can I best be of support to you.'"

Care Completes What Empathy Starts

Carter, like all great leaders, has figured out that you don't have to share people's feelings to show you care. Great leaders and managers invest time, effort and attention in the creation of relationships by individualizing, listening and seeing:

  • individualizing to the employee's engagement, development path and career goals
  • listening so that people feel heard and know you know what they bring to the table
  • seeing the employee's strengths and making sure they do what they do best every day

Fitting roles to people rather than fitting people to roles is more work. It takes relationships, which takes time and energy. But those relationships change employees' experience of work for the better. When you care, you know how to develop and motivate your people. You stand up for them and fight to make sure they have what they need, which is deeply engaging. Caring leaders don't try to automate humans. Instead, they invest in employees' success personally and professionally.

To improve performance, Gallup finds, leaders and managers need to do more than empathize. They need to care.

Gallup's Q12 survey measures employee engagement, and of the multitude of questions we tested, only 12 were scientifically validated to predict performance -- and care is laced through seven of them. That's why the instrument includes questions about having the opportunity to do what you do best and having a best friend at work. People who strongly agree with items like that perform better.

We found echoes of care when we studied followers too. Our research with over 10,000 employees in non-leader roles indicated that what followers need most in a leader is trust, compassion, stability and hope. Leaders who inspire those four things have a comparatively higher proportion of engaged customers, higher productivity and higher profitability. And not coincidentally, when followers trust their leaders, one in two are engaged. When followers don't trust their leaders, only one in 12 are engaged.

Moving Past Knowing to Doing

Some of the most valuable words found in the Q12 instrument and the follower study are nouns -- trust, hope, compassion, recognition, development, etc. Employees' responses to those concepts can be measured, which gives you predictive data to strategize business plans. But these nouns are only powerful when you turn them into verbs. Care is active.

Action is the real difference between empathy and care. Effective empathy training programs are predicated on that fact -- that's why they're effective -- because feeling what others feel and understanding them doesn't always prompt action. When it does, it's not always the right action.

Action is the real difference between empathy and care.

Indeed, emotionally perceptive leaders can exploit people's feelings to the leader's advantage. The empathetic can get stuck in others' emotional landscape, which constrains their leadership. And without the understanding that comes from relationships, empathy can turn into patronization. One Gallup client realized that, out of concern for women's internal support networks, some managers were restricting the lateral moves of female employees. As a result, women lost opportunities and agency, though their managers meant well.

Withholding opportunities and making decisions on employees' behalf may spring from empathy, but unless employees request it, it's not care.

So, before you jump on the empathy train, make sure it's going somewhere. Give leaders time and training to understand employees as individuals and learn what caring really looks and sounds like: active, employee-oriented and engaging. And measure change, because care affects business.

If you're developing yourself, learn who you are, your unique strengths and how to leverage them to care for your people. That's how Ben Carter creates relationships with, not despite, his less-than-empathetic nature. He listens, he acts, and his people know he cares.

Any leader can do that. Learning to grasp people's feelings and their context helps. But what matters most is the care you show to the person in front of you -- and acting on it. If you can move that aspect of empathy beyond a trend and into your leadership approach, your people will perform better. Your organization will too.

Caring is active -- and leading engaged employees requires learning just as actively:


Jeremie Brecheisen is a Partner and Managing Director of the CHRO Roundtable at Gallup.

Rachel Maglinger, Ph.D., is a Senior Consultant at Gallup.

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