Are Empathetic CEOs Losing Empathy?

One-third of workers think the corner office lacks a trait that was critical during the pandemic. But the so-called “empathy deficit” may be more complex than it seems.

During the pandemic, if CEOs had one motto, it was, “Take care of our people.” And by and large, workers noticed—and responded well. But it’s a new world now.

According to a new annual survey of 3,000 HR professionals, fully one-third do not find their CEO to be empathetic, a 16% drop from 2022. That contrasts with how the same HR officials view their fellow professionals, saying 92% still were empathetic despite the tough economy. “That’s concerning,” says Dennis Carey, vice chairman of Korn Ferry, where he co-leads the Board Services practice. “Empathy is so highly correlated with how people perceive leaders.”

Korn Ferry research shows that empathy is associated with successful long-term leadership, high retention, and positive team environments—in other words, it’s critical. Other studies show that leader empathy is predictive of positive job performance ratings from leaders’ bosses. Yet empathy can be hard for leaders to convey, because most have limited opportunities to be on the ground and hobnob with the workforce, says Carey.

A recent stream of cutbacks and layoffs have skewed employee views of their leaders. But experts say that low empathy, even when combined with high performance, puts CEOs at risk of not having enough team support and cohesiveness to go the distance. “They’re climbing Mount Everest alone,” says Jane Stevenson, vice chair and global leader of Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession practice. “They will need people with them all the way to the top.”

Some of the empathy deficit is likely coming from the CEOs themselves, who are tired and burned out: one December 2022 poll found that 70% of executives would leave their current job for one that better supported their well-being. This creates a cascade of problems. “People running on empty don’t have a lot of empathy, because we cannot give what we do not have in ourselves,” says Dr. Margie Warrell, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CEO Succession and Executive Leadership practice. She suggests that leaders manage their own emotional states as best they can, especially when they are feeling worn out.

The long-term solution, says Kevin Cashman, global co-leader of the CEO and Enterprise Leader Development practice at Korn Ferry, is to balance empathy with execution—a calculus that leads to business success. Both are essential to effective leadership, but “with too much empathy, decisions are tough to make; with too much execution, decisions are very tough on people.” Cashman recommends that leaders look closely at their 360-feedback reports from staff, as well as individual psychometric assessments, which can show the absence or presence of empathy. “Most leaders lean more executional or empathetic—we see it all the time,” he says.

Meanwhile, taking the time to mix and mingle with staffers—however briefly—continues to be essential, says Warrell. She notes that leaders should appear at every level of the business. “People want to know that their CEO cares about them as human beings, and not as human doings,” she says.  


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