Why Leaders Must Model Empathy In Challenging Times

MillerKnoll CEO Andi Owen's "pity city" comment was no doubt intended to be inspiring, but the aftermath of her comment shows just how wide the disconnect is between leadership and employees.

I’m sure many of us have seen the video of MillerKnoll CEO Andi Owen telling her company’s employees to “leave Pity City” and focus on meeting their revenue goal. The clip, which has been shared far and wide on the Internet, shows Owen responding to questions about employee bonuses with a rant that is callous and tone-deaf. And while many commenters, news outlets, and blogs are more than happy to pile on and reprimand Owen for what she said during the meeting, I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt. In what seems to me like an attempt to motivate and light a fire under MillerKnoll’s employees, she burned herself.

Owen’s sentiment was likely not meant to be deliberately insensitive or hurtful. However, her words demonstrate the disconnect between leadership and employees. As leaders, we want everyone to be as invested in our organization’s success as we are. That’s a tall order in today’s world, especially if employees don’t feel valued or heard.

Leaders need to guide and motivate employees effectively. How we choose to do that is also critical, and there are a few things leaders should consider before communicating with their employees.

Know what matters.

For leaders to establish trust, it’s a must to be transparent and honest with our employees. It’s also important to speak candidly about what is occurring within our organization. However, the message still needs to be delivered tactfully and with employees in mind. When communicating, sometimes the context of the message matters more than the content.

Employees want to feel heard, and leaders must acknowledge challenges and how they impact staff. Leaders should also address compensation, layoffs, budget cuts, or general employee concerns, but it must be done carefully and with empathy. These topics greatly affect employees’ lives, and they don’t see the company through the same lens as executives. MillerKnoll employees could lose a bonus, which could mean cancelling a planned vacation, missing a mortgage payment, or even suffering the burden of childcare challenges. Leaders should lead communication by addressing what matters most to their teams and speaking with that in mind.

Know when to ask for help.

Because communication is a critical component of effective leadership, it’s imperative to get it right. When addressing difficult topics, it’s helpful to have a plan in place and to involve other people in the planning process. Even when we directly communicate a message, ours shouldn’t be the only voice. While reading from a script will always come off as insincere, talking points, key messages, and possible answers to questions should always be discussed and agreed upon. This is before a message is delivered.

If leaders want additional context around a topic before commenting on it, an excellent place to start is by collecting input from a diverse group of people from around the organization. Gathering different perspectives better informs what and how we communicate and avoids miscommunication.

Know when to check on yourself.

When we receive negative feedback or criticism, it can be difficult not to react in the moment. However, leaders must understand the full scope of an issue before responding to it and risk saying the wrong thing. As the saying suggests, a smart person knows what to say, but a wise person knows whether or not to express it.

Effective and empathetic communication starts with listening. Everyone has their own motivations, which makes knowing how to tailor your communication essential to influencing others and reaching organizational goals. It’s wise not to assume how people will react to a challenge or jump in with a solution before fully understanding the problem. Leaders must remember that being in charge does not mean you always have the right answer.

When confronted with issues, criticism or challenges from employees, listen with empathy and acknowledge what they say. From there, take a step back and try to see things from their point of view before responding.

Many companies are facing economic headwinds and leaders are under pressure to deliver results. At the same time, employees navigate rising inflation, the increased cost of living, and other factors outside of work. Leading with empathy means recognizing that everyone has their own challenges to overcome and that they are all significant. As leaders, we must accept that we can’t make everyone happy. However, we can always make our employees feel valued.


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