Going Beyond Empathy Training – Actually Care

Story Highlights

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

Empathy training is all the rage.

The underlying theory is sound. Leaders and managers who understand their employees’ feelings can create more meaningful relationships with them, and Gallup data proves that strong relationships can improve business results.

Although a positive development, empathy means feeling what another person is feeling or perceiving their context. As beneficial as this ability is — and it really is — that only does not necessarily improve business performance.

To improve performance, according to Gallup, leaders and managers must do more than show empathy. They need care.

In fact, some of the best executives and leaders Gallup has ever studied aren’t very empathetic, they don’t easily sense the feelings and needs of others, and it takes effort (sometimes reluctantly) to understand employees. One of them — Ben Carter, Gallup’s executive coaching client and Trinity Health’s chief operating officer and vice president — is actually nicknamed “The Hammer.”

Nonetheless, Carter is an extraordinarily successful leader because he cares deeply about his employees. “The most effective way for me to do [direct reports] to succeed is to deeply understand their strengths and champion them,” says Carter. “It started to establish an ongoing connection and communication, which always comes back to ‘how are you feeling and how can I best help you’.

Care completes what empathy begins

Carter, like all great leaders, understands that you don’t have to share people’s feelings to show you care. Great leaders and managers invest time, effort, and attention in building relationships by individualizing, listening, and seeing:

  • individualizing the employee’s commitment, development path and career goals
  • listen so people feel heard and know you know what they’re bringing to the table
  • seeing the strengths of the employee and making sure they are doing what they do best on a daily basis

Fitting roles to people rather than fitting people to roles is more work. It takes relationships, which takes time and energy. But these relationships enhance the work experience of employees. When you care about yourself, 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. Benevolent leaders don’t try to automate humans. Instead, they invest in the personal and professional success of employees.

To improve performance, according to Gallup, leaders and managers must do more than show empathy. They need care.

Gallup’s Q12 The survey measures employee engagement, and of the multitude of questions we’ve tested, only 12 have been scientifically validated to predict performance – and seven of those are carefully tracked. That’s why the instrument includes questions about being able to do what you do best and having a best friend at work. People who strongly agree with items like this score better.

We also found echoes of care when we studied subscribers. Our research of over 10,000 employees in non-leadership roles indicated that what followers need most in a leader is trust, compassion, stability, and hope. Leaders who inspire these four things have a comparatively higher proportion of engaged customers, higher productivity, and higher profitability. And it’s no coincidence that when followers trust their leaders, one in two is engaged. When followers don’t trust their leaders, only one in 12 is engaged.

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Some of the most valuable words found in the Q12 the instrument and the study of followers are nouns – trust, hope, compassion, recognition, development, etc. Employee responses to these concepts can be measured, giving you predictive data to build business plans. But these nouns are only powerful when you turn them into verbs. The care is asset.

Action is the real difference between empathy and caring. Effective empathy training programs are based on this fact – it is Why they are effective – because feeling what others are feeling and understanding them does not always prompt action. When this is the case, it is not always the right action.

Action is the real difference between empathy and caring.

Indeed, emotionally perceptive leaders can exploit people’s feelings to their advantage. The empath can get stuck in the emotional landscape of others, which limits their leadership. And without the understanding that comes from relationships, empathy can turn into condescension. A Gallup client realized that out of concern for women’s internal support networks, some managers restricted the lateral movement of female employees. As a result, women lost opportunities and agency, although their managers had good intentions.

Withholding opportunities and making decisions on behalf of employees may stem from empathy, but unless employees ask for it, it is not caring.

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

If you develop yourself, learn who you are, your unique strengths and how to use them to care for your people. This is how Ben Carter builds relationships with, not despite, his unempathetic nature. He listens, he acts and his people know he cares.

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

Caring is active – and leading engaged employees requires equally active learning:


Jeremie Brecheisen is a partner and managing director of the CHRO Roundtable at Gallup.

Rachel Maglinger, Ph.D., is a senior consultant at Gallup.

Jennifer Robison is an editor at Gallup.

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