Yesterday, as we honored our nation’s presidents, I was struck to learn that even in the midst of building our fledgling and fragile democracy, our earliest leaders showed great empathy. Fast forward more than two centuries; studies have shown that the willingness to listen and empower others to achieve their goals is one of the key aspects to becoming a great leader. Further, our 2017 Workplace Empathy Monitor reveals that 90% of employees think empathy should be modeled at the top of an organization.
Today’s leaders – backed by the strength of our institutions and huge strides in cultural understanding – have far more knowledge about workplace empathy than our forefathers. Still, I believe many could do well to hearken back to past presidents for examples of empathetic leadership.
George Washington: Compassion
Richard Neustadt, presidential scholar at Harvard University, once observed about Washington: “It wasn’t his generalship that made him stand out … It was the way he attended to and stuck by his men. His soldiers knew that he respected and cared for them, and that he would share their severe hardships.” This quote illustrates Washington’s willingness to show compassion: to listen to, care for, and eventually work with his men to build a cohesive and successful team. More than two-thirds (76%) of HR pros surveyed in the Workplace Empathy Monitor say compassion is a key indicator of empathy.
Abraham Lincoln: Honesty
They say Washington could never tell a lie, but they don’t call Lincoln “Honest Abe” for nothing. Seventy-four percent of HR pros ranked honesty as extremely important for leaders, well above innovation (53%) and even intelligence (68%). Also described as compassionate, Lincoln clearly was the empathetic leader we needed to help the country navigate its darkest years during the Civil War. He used these traits he used to heal a divided nation by listening and engaging those around him, despite conflicting and contrasting views.
Theodore Roosevelt: Caring
The Workplace Empathy Monitor data is clear: 92% of employees and 98% of HR professionals say that an empathetic employer drives retention; almost 80% of employees would be willing to work longer hours for an employer they perceived as empathetic. What’s more, 60% of employees would take a pay cut to work for a more empathetic employer.
Plus, 72% of employees (and nearly 80% of Millennials) saying they would leave their organization if it became less empathetic.
No president articulated this data better than Roosevelt, who famously said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Despite the mounting evidence of in support of empathy at work, 34% of CEOs believe demonstrating empathy may cause them to come off as a pushover and a staggering 68% fear they’ll be respected less. However, like so many things in life, past is precedent. If three of our nation’s most respected leaders can work empathetically, you can, too!
Try holding small group meetings with employees and listen to their struggles. Send out a brief survey to get a better idea of the pulse of your organization and well-being of your employees – make it anonymous so the answers will be open and honest. Hold open door meetings or host a short Q&A session with a group at lunch. You may never see yourself on Mount Rushmore, but it will be worth it all the same.