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Empathy becomes a critical management skill in the post-pandemic world

October 14, 2022, 8:25 PM UTC
Executives from Workday, Ancestry, PwC, Autodesk, and the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy discuss leading with empathy at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., Oct. 11, 2022.
Stuart Isett for Fortune

The pandemic exposed a lot of truths we try to keep hidden. Coworkers saw us in very real circumstances, whether we wanted them to or not. It could have been stress over an unruly child during a Zoom call, a sense of hopelessness or fear over a sick relative, or a dog who goes berserk at inopportune times—peers and supervisors alike saw us as we are, rather than the constructs we bring to the office.

There’s a vulnerability that comes with that sort of exposure. And today, more than ever, empathy has become an essential part of being a manager. Unfortunately, not everyone fully grasps what empathy is.

“It’s not about treating how you’d want to be treated, it’s about treating others how they want to be treated,” said Dara Treseder, chief marketing officer of Autodesk, at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Tuesday. “Truly being empathetic means not just understanding what other people need, but responding to them in the way they can receive what they need.”

Empathy is, in many ways, an organic skill. But managers can take steps to improve upon it. Mitra Best, technology impact leader at PwC, said the skills managers need to focus on are curiosity (“be vulnerable about what you don’t know, so you can ask and understand what people are experiencing”); active listening (which means truly listening, rather than formulating thoughts about how you’re going to reply); and pushing down your own personal biases.

“We can confuse sympathy for empathy,” added British Robinson, president and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. “Sympathy is understanding the feelings and saying, ‘I went through that.’ Empathy is harder.”

The effects of the pandemic and the authenticity we’ve all had to show our coworkers and managers, while certainly challenging, also created an opportunity for companies. If empathy is infused into the company’s culture, it can help lead workers forward, giving them an opportunity to build a life—both work and personal—about which that they’re excited.

“What you regard is what you get more of,” said Deb Liu, president and CEO of Ancestry. “What you measure is what you get more of…Do a culture audit, like you would audit your finances. It’s so important to your business results, your customers, and your employees.”

Companies that don’t show empathy are at greater risk of losing employees, the panel noted. And while that’s a skill that’s easy when times are good, the coming months could test employer empathy.

Or, put another way, “empathy is today’s superpower,” said Ashley Goldsmith, chief people officer at Workday.

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