There is a growing demand in companies for leaders who are empathetic, compassionate and can motivate employees, promote wellbeing and, in the process, raise organizational performance. And these concerns have come into sharper focus given the Covid-19 pandemic, the pressures of remote working, and growing calls for greater diversity in the workforce.
“In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in companies understanding the critical relevance of empathy, trust, compassion, and general ‘people skills’ for mangers to foster engagement among employees,” says IESE Business School professor Alberto Ribera in Barcelona. “This includes organizational practices that promote wellbeing and prevent stress or burnout.”
In response, business schools have launched a slew of executive education courses that aim to nurture social and emotional skills and train more humanistic leaders. Ribera is academic director of IESE´s executive program “Become a Positive Leader to Accelerate Positive Change”, run jointly with Michigan Ross School of Business of the US.
Participants will learn how to cultivate a mindful and mission-driven workplace that empowers and engages employees. “A human touch is needed to successfully manage teams working remotely,” says Ribera. “Covid-19 continues to have a huge impact on people’s mental health. This has contributed to people rediscovering the value of interdependence, collaboration, and compassion for others.”
This is a sentiment echoed by UCLA Anderson School of Management professor Heather Caruso in Los Angeles. “As diversity is increasingly welcomed in the workforce, organizations are recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach to their employees’ identities and personal backgrounds can be highly counterproductive,” she says.
“Conversely, managers who have the skills to proactively learn about their employees — understanding each individual as they wish to be understood — are well positioned to build organizational value and gain a career edge,” she adds.
Caruso is the faculty director of the “Inclusive Leadership: Empowering the Diverse Workforce” program at UCLA Anderson. Delivered live online, the program equips leaders with the evidence-based insights they will need to design effective processes for the equitable, diverse, and inclusive workforces that the modern workforce requires.
“Both Covid and the calls for greater diversity have highlighted the significant degree to which both our individual experiences, and our social identities shape the kinds of contributions we make at work,” says Caruso. “Managers who can build empathy — not only within themselves but also among those who work for them — are needed to empower their employees to bring their whole selves to work.”
More than just ‘people skills’
Andreas Richter, professor of organizational behavior at Cambridge Judge Business School, says: “There is research suggesting that employees are expecting this from managers, but also that managers who lead with empathy are effective. The flip side is that managers high on dark triad personality characteristics also show negative effects on employees.”
He says poor management practices can negatively impact employees in many ways, including their motivation, confidence, self-concept and mental health. The “Transformational Leadership” program at Cambridge Judge in the UK nurtures social and emotional skills largely through self-reflection exercises, introspection and debate with others who come from a variety of backgrounds and experience.
“Many of the learning outcomes relate to getting the best out of employees – through techniques such as motivation without using formal authority, flexibility in leadership style, maneuvering the need for change and resistance to change,” says Richter.
Another key learning outcome is finding the right balance between leadership that is inspirational and results-oriented. “These can be one and the same, and if so that’s a terrific outcome,” he adds.
Leadership can help engage employees
Back at IESE, Ribera agrees that cultivating a mindful work environment empowers and engages employees, as well as driving them towards peak performance. “This involves understanding and integrating a leadership model based on character strengths, purpose and fulfillment,” he says.
Poor management practices can lead to toxic work environments, he adds. “The result is high attrition rates, high levels of employee absenteeism and presenteeism, as well as lower productivity. Companies will also miss out on the best talent if employees feel frustrated or disengaged at work.”
UCLA Anderson’s Caruso agrees that poor management practices can cause “lower motivation, poor coordination, high turnover, poor organizational performance, low creativity, inefficient problem solving”. In her course, participants learn how to create organizations that maximize engagement with diverse identities, viewpoints, worldviews and perspectives.
“Attendees foster working climates in which individuals meet one another with appreciation, belonging and respect,” she says. “They learn to design programs, policies and procedures to enhance EDI in ways that sustainably engage all stakeholders.”