Empathy in leadership – or lack thereof – became a talking point on 9 February when it emerged that KPMG chair Bill Michael had urged staff to “stop moaning” about the effects of Covid-19 on their jobs. (The Guardian, 9 February 2021)
In a staff videocall the previous day – recordings of which soon made their way online – Michael had also gnashed his teeth at employees “playing the victim card” with regards to current working conditions, and had also railed against his own firm’s inclusion efforts, saying: “There is no such thing as unconscious bias. I don’t buy it. Because after every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing’s ever improved.” (City AM, 11 February 2021)
As shock and confusion reverberated through KPMG’s workforce, Michael issued an apology, saying: “I am sorry for the words I used, which did not reflect what I believe in, and I have apologised to my colleagues. Looking after the wellbeing of our people and creating a culture where everyone can thrive is of critical importance to me and is at the heart of everything we do as a firm.”
However, on 12 February, Michael announced his resignation, with senior elected board member Bina Mehta replacing him as chair.
Michael’s empathy gap sparked a significant amount of commentary, with Gemma McCall – head of bullying-prevention software firm Culture Shift – telling The Guardian: “Leaders really do need to take heed and exceed expectations when it comes to creating safe and supported environments for all employees.” (The Guardian, 12 February 2021)
News of Michael’s blunt and bracing staff call coincided with the Financial Times’s publication of readers’ feedback highlighting a wave of pandemic burnout that has hit the paper’s audience of white-collar professionals. (Financial Times, 8 February 2021)
Based on anecdotal responses from 250 readers around the world, the FT piece laid bare the strain of the past year as employees struggled with their work-life balance – and often with their leaders.
A reader named Julia explained that she had suffered palpitations in the first 2020 lockdown, compounded by worries about her husband being stuck at work overseas.
In addition, she wrote, wellbeing resources provided by her employer failed to address her workload: “I received no support in the form of help with projects which were still expected to be completed by strict deadlines and no extra time allowance, which would have been really helpful.”
When Julia herself eventually caught Covid, she had to work throughout her illness – a situation that led her to endure a protracted, two-month recovery.
What should leaders be doing at this time to hone and harness the empathy required for dealing with these painful issues among their staff?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Bill Michael’s comments certainly lacked empathy. He’d been presented with staff who were articulating their concerns – yet immediately vented his own irritation and frustration without any sort of filter. However, to some extent, this is a manifestation of what’s happening to a lot of people.
“KPMG’s staff had expressed their concerns purely in the context of the workplace. But think of the broader factors we’re all facing, such as social isolation, missing family and friends and the restriction of opportunities to recharge our batteries. In light of those issues, we can reasonably conclude that working practices are only partly contributing to people’s lack of resilience, and the low ebb at which they now find themselves.”
She points out: “There are further concerns, too, particularly around home schooling – whether that means monitoring it, or actually having to join in. Elderly parents, who may in some cases live quite far away, also present staff with significant worries. So, family mental health is under enormous pressure. People are coming to work with a lower level of resilience than we would normally expect. As leaders, we have to recognise that and make appropriate allowances. People in senior positions must be very mindful of all the stresses and strains that staff are having to cope with before they even start work.”
Cooper notes: “Adjusting expectations, flexing the working day, extending deadlines – whatever one can do to make people’s working lives a bit more manageable – should be top of any leader’s agenda right now. And that should go right through the organisation: any manager, any leader, however senior, should have someone who is able to support them. And if, at the most senior levels, that means bringing in coaches, for example, the benefits of those resources will filter all the way down the organisation and start a host of useful discussions: ‘What do you need from me in order to do your job properly?’”
She adds: “Telling people off for not coping terribly well, or for not delivering the performance they may have been able to deliver in the absence of current concerns, highlights the defining characteristics of an empathy gap. Ultimately, empathy is about putting yourself in other people’s shoes – and being able to appreciate that their concerns are every bit as real as your own. Bill Michael got that wrong.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on the healthy workplace