What has Happened to Empathy
“It doesn’t matter what medium you’re using if the person delivering the message is an a-hole.” — Deborah Copaken
In early December 2021, the CEO of Better.com, Vishal Garg, took to Zoom on a one-way call with 900 employees. The CEO used this Zoom call to inform those employees of the termination of their time with the company. The CEO then said that the fired employees were “lazy and unproductive” and accused them of stealing. Following this now-infamous Zoom call, CEO Vishal Garg has written an apology letter and has been “taking time off” from his responsibilities. Additionally, three Better.com executives have since resigned, citing the poor handling of the mass firing and the CEO’s “divisive management style.”
The lay-off of a large population of Better.com employees was likely never going to be a positive event. However, the negative reactions were exacerbated further by the termination method and the insinuations from the CEO. This event has led to strong emotional responses from inside and outside the company. Ultimately the fallout of this event has led to several executives resigning and has negatively impacted the brand of Better.com. Perhaps a little demonstration of empathy in this situation could have benefited everyone involved.
The American Psychological Association defines empathy as “understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own.” One way to think about it is that empathy recognizes and appreciates how our interactions and behaviors impact others. You are probably thinking, “of course, a psychologist would encourage us all to be more empathetic towards others.” However, psychologists are not the only professionals looking into the positive impacts of empathy on interpersonal relationships. The research emerging from leadership and empathy is becoming clearer: empathy is the most important leadership skill.
The research findings around empathy are consistent with the Psyince team’s findings from working with a wide array of high-performing organizations. Our work found that organizations led by empathetic leaders were also better across organizational productivity outcomes. For example, the team at Psyince has consistently found that employees rate their workplace engagement and psychological safety higher in organizations led by emotionally intelligent and empathetic leaders. These factors have also been found in research to increase workplace productivity and employee retention.
As the unemployment rate continues to be high and employees continue to leave the traditional workforce, organizations and leaders must understand their impact on workers to keep their high-performing workforce. As Better.com’s Zoom firing illustrates, the effects of thoughtlessness can reverberate throughout an organization, leading to unintended consequences such as protest resignations and negative impacts on an organization’s brand.
An excellent way for leaders to understand how empathy impacts their workplace would be to use a high-quality survey instrument to gauge the current workplace environment. High-quality surveys are grounded in the best available research and created explicitly for your industry and organizational structure. There are a lot of surveys out there that are one-size-fits-all, without taking into account the specific aspects of particular industries. This level of data collection is important because most leaders, at some point, reach a level of seniority where they no longer get accurate, challenging, and meaningful feedback from their subordinates. Without this feedback, leaders can be blind to the impact of decisions and the perception of their leadership style. Leaders should not want the first feedback they get to be resignation letters from employees as they vote with their feet and walk out of the organization.
At Psyince, we can help leaders and organizations understand their team, company culture, and the impact of their leadership approaches. Understanding is the first step to effective executive coaching and any meaningful change initiative. We can help you and your team generate that understanding.