Leadership and culture

Productivity and the W.H.E.N. of work. Part 5: E is for empathy

Published on May 03, 2022

This article series is here to help you hack productivity by optimizing the human factors that influence production and performance. The objective of this series, however, is to show that there’s no shortcut to an optimized worker. There are always systemic, cultural, and personal factors at play, influencing the quality and quantity of work accomplished. Although we don’t have a complete understanding of the conditions and constraints that influence every human’s mind, there are many lessons for leaders to integrate into their understanding of their workplace and those they lead.

How dysfunctional and inefficient is your workplace? Do you even have the proper scope to answer that question? It’s certainly the case that some inefficiencies and dysfunctions in the workplace can be abated with rules, processes, and systems. This is often where IT departments are brought in. They’re tasked with finding the right technology, technique, or tactic to alleviate a problem, then they implement and maintain an adequate solution. But what about when the issues are harder to identify or quantify? When the sources of dysfunctions, inefficiencies, and underperformance aren’t easily located, which symptoms can be assessed to find them?

You could start your diagnostics with a top-down approach, such as identifying whether any particular teams or departments consistently have trouble retaining talent. Or perhaps a bottom-up approach reveals that there are reports of widespread burnout across your organization. Another consideration is the relative structure and flow of organizational communication. These and other similar considerations, while sometimes alleviated by technology and training, are at times better addressed with attempts to make empathetic connections.

Empathy includes a range of processes that revolve around understanding other people, typically by responding with appropriate emotions to the feelings they’re expressing (affective empathy) or considering how you’d feel if you were experiencing something from their frame of reference (cognitive empathy).

As we’ll explore below, empathy is the most useful skill in the leadership toolkit because when you use it effectively, you can:

  • Establish and maintain the interpersonal relationships necessary for an organization to operate.
  • Sooth employees’ addressable negative emotions and temper employees against productivity sinks such as burnout.
  • Bolster the strengths of employees and inspire positive emotions in them.


Empathy as an enabler of organizational communication

There are many popular approaches to leadership. Beyond a leader’s personality, which leadership style they tend to use will likely depend on which teams, departments, or business units their followers work in. While different approaches present their own opportunities and challenges, IT leadership should place extra emphasis on communication.

In today’s work environments that are increasingly remote and distributed, having consistent, uncomplicated communication channels is of key importance. There’s a long-standing adage in software development known as Conway’s Law, which states, “Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.” An enterprise’s approach to organizational hierarchy and team structures will place inherent limits on the communication that takes place between and within teams, which will be mirrored in the software it develops.

However, there’s a deeper consideration than structure to keep in mind: the strength and quality of communication that takes place in the organization. Maintaining healthy communication channels goes beyond the particular tools and technologies that are used to keep each of an organization’s interrelated teams and departments in contact. Each of these subsystems is comprised of individuals who create a network of interpersonal relationships. The strength of these relationships often depends on everyone being able to recognize one another’s emotional dispositions and demonstrate the appropriate touch of empathy.

Although many jobs have their productivity measured by output KPIs, such as tickets closed or first call resolution, inputs often go unaddressed. Some of the biggest contributing factors to productivity, like employee motivation and emotional disposition, are harder to identify and manage. But over the last few decades, it’s become apparent that listening to, engaging with, and helping to manage employees’ emotions are positively related to job performance. Any manager or leader who limits the scope of their relationships with subordinates to tangible metrics and KPIs is missing the forest for the trees.

Although every employee wields a skill set to fulfill their job title, organizations are more than a collection of job titles in a hierarchy. Each person is also accompanied by a unique blend of personality, life experiences, values, personal obligations, and other factors in their life that could change without notice. Leaders need genuine insight into employees’ lives to see whether any workplace dysfunctions are stemming from personal issues. However, leaders cannot expect to gain those insights unless the people they lead trust them and are willing to share.


Foster a trusting business environment

Problem: Great leaders are often recognized as the ones who foster trust, but the journey from menacing middle management all the way to lovable senior leadership is fraught with many potential pitfalls and dead ends. Before employees can truly trust a leader, a leader must trust themselves.

The goal for most organizations should be to cultivate a work environment where leadership is actively trying to engage with employees in a way that builds trust. The author Stephen M. R. Covey indicates as much in his book The Speed of Trust, in which he says that great companies are known for the following trusting leadership behaviors:

  • Creating transparency
  • Confronting reality
  • Practicing accountability
  • Talking straight
  • Righting wrongs

Trust in a business setting, according to Covey, has an inverse relationship with the cost of business. Organizations that foster high-trust environments have a lower cost of business than those with low-trust environments.

Building trust in the workplace starts with the self. A lack of trust in yourself makes it difficult to trust others. Self-trust requires credibility, which is built by character and competence:

  • Character requires:
    1. Integrity, which is comprised of honesty, congruence, humility, and courage.
    2. Intent, which is established through a development of motive into agenda into behavior.
  • Competence requires:

    1. Capabilities, which are developed through TASKS (talents, attitudes, skills, knowledge, and style).
    2. Results, which are dependent on past performance, present performance, and anticipated future performance.

 With Covey’s vision, once you’ve sufficiently built self-trust through credibility, you can work outward on building trust on increasingly wider scales:

    • Trust in relationships using consistent behavior.
    • Trust in organizations through alignment.
    • Trust in markets with reputation.
    • Trust in society via contribution.

Although Covey doesn’t rely on the precise terms used in the WHEN framework, there is compatibility here. Cultivating wisdom, understanding heuristics, embracing empathy, and nurturing natural needs all have to arise from within yourself first. Then, as you build trust with others and your sphere of influence widens, your ability to positively impact the structure of your work environment improves. A work relationship or work environment that lacks trust is like a house built on a bad foundation. The longer any strains remain imbalanced, the more likely any additional stressors will cause structural damage.

Takeaway: Trust is a foundational element for a productive work environment. Additional insights from Covey’s work demonstrate that a lack of trust:

  • Causes differences to collide (trust leverages differences for creativity and synergy).
  • Only allows for coordination (trust empowers collaboration).
  • Results in existential rigidity (trust enables existential flexibility and calculated risk-taking).
  • Leads to untested competency (trust fosters a culture of learning).
  • Slows innovation and decision-making (trust enables speed).


Defend against burnout and destigmatize mental health discussions

Problem: Burnout and other mental health troubles can present various workplace challenges. While many organizations are happy to offer tactical mental health solutions to help workers maintain productivity, workers tend to need a more holistic approach to treating their mental health difficulties. Unfortunately, the time, effort, and resources required to fulfill this need can give uncommitted managers and leaders pause. What’s more, mental health issues continue to carry a variety of stigmas, causing many people to be uncomfortable with sharing their struggles. Leaders cannot express genuine empathy if their employees aren’t willing to signal their genuine feelings.


While many mental health issues have contributing factors that are difficult to determine, burnout is particularly tied to the workplace. A few years ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) put out a statement regarding the inclusion of burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in its International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (ICD-11), which went into effect at the beginning of this year. The ICD-11 defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The syndrome is characterized by “1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy.” Although this official classification is new, burnout has been studied for decades, with six areas of worklife appearing as the defining factors: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.

Burnout’s contributing factors have qualitative and quantitative aspects that influence the duration and intensity of the condition. Isolation, a lack of control, inadequate rewards, a misalignment of values—experiencing one or a few of these for a short time span likely won’t cause burnout. But the symptoms will become more apparent the longer the issue goes unchanged and the more issues the worker experiences.

Considering some of the popular beliefs about workplace culture, it’s easy to see why some leaders might succumb to a myopic view of burnout. Sending out frequent mindfulness tips and encouraging workers to take up yoga should keep them happy and healthy, right? Perhaps a strongly worded email about motivation, work ethic, and teamwork will inspire the workers to escape their sense of chronic stress.

Although leaders and managers might be tempted to address burnout on an individual basis or by addressing specific symptoms and behaviors, alleviating burnout requires a more holistic approach. While workers should be given the time and space to alleviate the factors that they can handle on their own, as this Harvard Business Review article puts it, “Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People.” Even if workers do all they can about internal factors, they’ll likely continue to experience burnout if the external factors, such as problems that arise from the workplace, are not also addressed.

With that in mind, senior leadership should practice some empathy and come to terms with the fact that they’re responsible for establishing a less stressful workplace. What they absolutely shouldn’t do is shift the primary responsibility of relieving burnout to each employee.

What’s more, employee wellness programs can’t be a tacked-on part of the job that employees can take care of when they have some availability. For a wellness program to have a strong effect, it shouldn’t be optional or scheduled for off the clock. It needs to be an integrated part of a job and it needs to replace actual working time.

Furthermore, leaders and managers should be on the lookout for symptoms of burnout among their own ranks. According to a 2021 Gallup survey, the percentage of people-oriented managers who reported feeling burned out “very often” or “always” rose to 35%, up from 28% the previous year.

Takeaway: Contributing to the well-being of everyone in an organization should continue to be a top priority. Particularly considering that when a person is consistently exposed to burnout, high stress, a lack of rest, and empathy-based stress, they’ll experience a reduced capacity for compassion and other strains on empathy.

Other mental health efforts

Besides burnout, the pandemic has made it clear that many people are suffering from mental disorders without getting the help they need. According to a 2022 report by Mental Health America, nearly 50 million Americans (19.86% of adults) experienced a mental illness in 2019. Over half of those adults did not receive treatment.

In a scientific brief released by WHO two months ago, it identified a 25% increase in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social isolation in particular was identified as a major explanation for stress.

Since mental disorders affect thinking, emotions, and behaviors, they can disrupt attempts at empathy (both to and from the sufferer). Treating mental health can improve the strength and stability of interpersonal relationships, which can in turn more deeply engage employees in their work, reduce the prevalence of sick days and absenteeism, as well as alleviate some of the relevant factors of burnout.

Despite many efforts being made to raise awareness of disabilities and disorders, many people are reluctant to seek treatment and quietly suffer due to the prevalence of stigmas against mental illness. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), “people avoid or delay seeking treatment due to concerns about being treated differently or fears of losing their jobs and livelihood.” APA identifies three kinds of stigmas: public stigma, self-stigma, and institutional stigma. Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination against mental illness result in “reduced hope, lower self-esteem, increased symptoms, difficulties at work, and a lower likelihood of maintaining your treatment plan.”

A few years ago, APA ran a national poll in the United States that determined that “roughly half of American workers say they are comfortable talking about their mental health in the workplace, and more than one-third are worried about job consequences if they seek mental health care.” Furthermore, over two-thirds of workers stated they knew how to access mental health services and “are at least somewhat comfortable accessing services (62%) through their employer if needed.”

Would you reach out to your coworker and offer assistance if you recognized that they were suffering in some way? That might give them the confidence they need to pursue help. However, locating and receiving care for mental health was already difficult in the US and across the globe before the pandemic. In the workplace, a broader approach (such as emotional intelligence) might be necessary because you may not even be aware that someone lives each day with an invisible disability:

“About 10% of Americans have a medical condition which could be considered an invisible disability. Ninety-six percent of people with chronic medical conditions live with a condition that is invisible. These people do not use a cane or any assistive device and act as if they didn’t have a medical condition. About 25% of them have some type of activity limitation, ranging from mild to severe; the remaining 75% are not disabled by their chronic conditions.”

Organizations that want to foster empathetic work environments and help end mental health stigmas need to do more than talk. Research suggests that anti-stigma campaigns to educate the public on mental illness tend to have limited effect. Rather, alternatives include the pursuit of systemic change, funding for research, persuasive media interventions, and targeted attempts to increase mental health literacy.

Takeaway: Anyone who cares about their organization’s leadership and cultural initiatives should ensure that the following myths, misconceptions, and long-standing stigmas about mental health conditions are not perpetuated:

  • Mental illness is just an excuse for poor behavior.
  • Only a certain kind of person ends up with a mental illness.
  • You could snap out of it if you tried hard enough.
  • Mental illness is a private issue that shouldn’t be talked about.
  • Mental illness can be completely cured.


Practice emotional intelligence

Problem: For a variety of reasons, one of the trickiest aspects of maintaining a work-life balance is navigating affective states (feelings, emotions, and moods). This trickiness stems, in part, from the fact that emotions aren’t limited to psychological factors; there are physiological and social factors that can have ripple effects. Depending on a person’s role or task at hand, how they understand, regulate, and communicate these affective states could have wide-ranging consequences.

Although many people in IT are familiar with the concept of IQ (cognitive intelligence) due to the associated skill set needed for many IT roles, they are less familiar with the concept of emotional intelligence (EI, sometimes depicted as EQ). There’s a significant portion of workplace culture that falls outside the direct influence of IQ, so organizations need to cultivate strong EI and select for EI in their leadership candidates. High EI predicts workplace achievement, even after controlling for personality and IQ, and has been identified as an essential component of effective leadership.

What differentiates EI from empathy is the ability to think about emotions abstractly and in a nonlocal manner. While empathy includes the perception and understanding of others’ affective states, it tends to be limited to the immediacy of those emotions and moods. Basic emotions tend to be short-lived, and even more complex emotions tend to be in response to immediate stimuli, responses, and behaviors.

Leaders who wield EI can skillfully use:

  • Affective empathy to preempt or invoke particular emotional states in employees. Leaders can use this to embody optimism and inspire others.
  • Cognitive empathy to engage with prior knowledge about employees to understand their thoughts, emotions, and perspectives. Leaders can use this to preempt certain actions and even prime interactions to suit the unstated needs of others.
  • Behavioral empathy to perform actions that communicate particular emotional dispositions, such as openness and joviality. Leaders can use this to demonstrate which actions and attitudes enable the best sense of empathy for employees.

Takeaway: EI influences many of the soft skills that are often talked about in business leadership settings, but some organizations have trouble prioritizing EI due to its hard-to-quantify nature. However, organizations shouldn’t neglect selecting for EI in managers and senior leadership. A boss lacking EI might be what’s keeping disengaged employees from becoming engaged in their work—or worse, they’re driving employees away from the organization. As the saying goes, “people leave managers, not companies.”


Describe how you’re feeling

Poor interpersonal communication from leaders and managers leads to problems with workers’ self-knowing (doubting the validity of their emotions), self-shaping (a lack of confidence in their ability to communicate effectively), other-knowing (a disconnect between their perceptions and reality), and other-shaping (a lack of will to attempt empathy).

While you and those you lead can’t be happy all the time, positive emotions help cultivate genuine connections and mitigate the impact of negative emotions. Just the same, negative emotions can’t be outright dismissed, nor should they be suppressed.

Rather, sources of negative emotions should be investigated to see if there’s an opportunity to improve the workplace. Otherwise, the longer someone experiences psychological or physiological stress, the less likely they have the necessary emotional energy to self-regulate their affective state. When situations involving strong negative emotions such as anger do arise in the workplace, there are still opportunities to channel that emotional energy into the work you do rather than unintentionally direct it at a coworker.

If you find yourself having trouble communicating with someone at work, or there’s a conflict that you’re unsure how to approach, try taking a position of humble entreaty. Express your concern genuinely and approach the other person with a sincere request for help. Describe the problem you’re facing and give them space to provide their input. Even if they’re the cause of the conflict, your demeanor should make it clear that the solution they provide matters.

In Part 6 of this series, we’ll address natural needs: all the things you and I can’t do without. While a workplace can’t and shouldn’t be the only way a person fulfills all of their natural needs, there are a few considerations leaders should keep in mind.

This is Part 5 of a series. Part 1 is on personal productivity and self-improvement. Part 2 is on competency, collaboration, and culture. Part 3 is on organizational wisdom. Part 4 is on heuristic cognition. Part 5 is on empathy and emotional intelligence. Part 6 is on physical and social needs.


Looking for more insights?

We just launched the inaugural issue of our quarterly e-mag: Digital Life. This first issue, titled “Insights on personal digital wellness,” is our latest response to the relentless expansion of information technology into our daily lives. IT is everywhere, increasingly dissolving the boundaries of digital lives on the job, off the job, and in the world at large. Explore topics such as wearable tech, data hoarding, the metaverse, and the future of work. We look forward to exploring other topics and angles in future releases.

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