Let’s visit a fictional town hall meeting between management and staff about the company’s post-pandemic workplace environment:
CEO: “OK everyone, I’ve got an announcement. We’re all going to be back in the office by the end of next month.”
Employees (talking all at once): “That’s ridiculous! Look at the data: We’re way more productive working from home. I’ve had a super-productive year. Why waste time on a stressful two-hour commute? That’s 10 extra hours a week for work and family. It’s been amazing being home and interacting more with my kids. I don’t want to go back to the way things were.”
CEO: “Look, it’s not up for debate. We’re returning to the office. Productivity isn’t the only thing that’s important here. We also need to innovate, and we innovate when we collaborate in person. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to find a job someplace else.”
Employees (thinking all at once): “Well, I’m out of here. Time to call the headhunter. Isn’t there a labor shortage? I’m sure I can find a better job at a company that cares about me.”
We’ve seen some version of this interaction happening at a lot of different workplaces — and it’s not going well. Some employees are leaving, contributing to what’s being called the Great Resignation. Others are staying but are increasingly disengaged and many are looking for alternative opportunities.
There is a better way. A way to make unpopular decisions and follow through on them while while actually increasing worker engagement. This matters a lot because low engagement and an organization’s poor financial performance are linked.
What’s the better way? It starts with listening. That seems simple and obvious. When’s the last time you read an article teaching you how to steamroll over employees’ concerns and needs? On the contrary, there’s plenty of research showing that listening to employees is better than ignoring them. For example, Workforce Institute published research by Dan Schawbel and Chris Mullen showing that employees who don’t feel heard are far less engaged.
According to Schawbel and Mullen’s findings, 63% of employees in a global survey report that their voice has not been heard by their manager or employer. A third of them would rather quit than express their true concerns to management.
So we know that listening is a good idea but we’re not doing it. Why?
In our conversations with company leaders, one factor emerges: a mistaken belief that listening and empathizing with complaints somehow validates those complaints. The CEO thinks, “If I acknowledge that they have a point, then I’ll lose my leverage to make a tough decision (in the interest of the organization) that contradicts their point.”
It is true that pretending to listen can backfire. Research published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2011 warned against giving employees a “pseudo-voice”: the equivalent of the suggestion box that never gets opened.
“There’s a difference between listening to employees and agreeing with them.”
But there’s a difference between listening and agreeing. What leaders must do to move forward after the WFH (work-from-home) revolution is to hear, respect, and acknowledge employees’ concerns, desires, and fears, while at the same time reserving the right to make decisions that may not be what those employees would prefer.
It’s crucial to separate empathy from decision-making. Empathy doesn’t constrain decision making; it facilitates it. Employees may disagree with the decision, but if they feel their concerns were heard and validated, they are far more likely to accept and even support policies they may not have chosen themselves.
Still, knowing it’s a good idea to empathize with opposing views is not the same as doing it. Doing it is counterintuitive; it’s tough to do in the heat of the moment. Which is why managers need a reliable process to do what you know you should but, left to your own devices, probably wouldn’t.
The first step in this process is arguably the most critical: Shift your mindset and approach from critic to ally. Empathy is how you get there and demonstrate a new mindset.
Look at how our fictional CEO responded to employees’ concerns and complaints at the company-wide town hall meeting. Total dismissal. Argument and debate. An unwillingness to acknowledge any validity to their point of view. That’s the perspective of a critic; one who knows better, whose objective is to convince others they’re wrong.
How might empathy, skillfully deployed and expressed, have changed the dynamic?
Before speaking, the CEO needs to do some inner work to be an ally of employees, and not just mouth the words. That means first getting in touch with their own motivation.
A leader’s inner dialogue might go like this: “What’s motivating me here? I’m looking out for my organization’s long-term well-being. Yes, productivity is up but innovation is down. That’s going to turn out badly, maybe not in the short term, but certainly over the next several years. It’s my job as leader to keep the long-term vision in mind.”
Once a leader has clear intentions, then employees’ intentions can be considered. Workers aren’t being lazy, or ungrateful, or short-sighted. When the CEO gets curious and listens to them, it becomes evident that employees are advocating for productivity, which is important, and they’re expressing their desire to lead balanced lives free of unnecessary stress. Those are all positive values.
After the CEO has actively listened, it’s possible to respond much more effectively to employee resistance. Not by pushing back, but by empathizing and acknowledging the underlying validity of their concerns.
Here’s what a more aware CEO could say: “I want to share an important update regarding our work from home policy. After lengthy discussion, and in consideration of multiple factors, we have made the decision that we will be transitioning back to working in the office over the next month and a half. It’s a huge shift from how we’ve been doing things and it’s going to be disruptive to many of you.
“Many of you with young kids at home have told me how wonderful it’s been to be able to stay home. You have reported being much more productive without a daily commute. You have told me how much less stress you’ve been experiencing. I want you to know that I’ve heard you, and I appreciate the difficulty you’re facing in returning. We will do everything we can to help you make that transition as painless as possible.
“You may be wondering why a return to the office is even necessary, given all those downsides. Productivity has been high and our results show that, but productivity is not the only value that’s crucial to our success as an organization. Innovation is critical. As is collaboration. And the innovation that comes from face-to-face collaboration. Our organization’s future depends on it.”
Employees: “Well, I’m not thrilled about it, but I can see where they’re coming from. It makes sense. Honestly, I do miss those interactions sometimes, and it would be awesome to get out of the house at least a couple days a week. I wonder if we can figure out how to get the best of both worlds. I mean, they are listening to us. Maybe this would be a useful conversation to have with my manager.”
When a CEO leads with empathy, even tough decisions don’t have to fray relationships. When leaders approach employees as allies rather than critics, they have greater power to make and enforce decisions, not less.
Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson are the authors of You Can Change Other People: The Four Steps to Help Your Colleagues, Employees—Even Family—Up Their Game (Wiley, 2021). Bregman is an executive coach and CEO of Bregman Partners. Jacobson is director of coaching at Bregman Partners and host of the “Plant Yourself” podcast.