A mere 51 percent of U.K. employees believe their senior leaders possess the coveted trait of empathy, according to O.C. Tanner’s 2024 Global Culture Report.
The comprehensive study, drawing insights from over 42,000 individuals across 27 countries, including 4,818 respondents from the United Kingdom, sheds light on a critical leadership deficit.
The report further emphasises that even when leaders do exhibit empathy, a mere 52 percent of employees feel it is accompanied by meaningful action and support.
These findings raise questions about the effectiveness of empathy in leadership and its impact on employee engagement and satisfaction.
Is being empathetic enough?
Robert Ordever, European Managing Director of O.C. Tanner, highlights the significance of empathy in progressive organisations. “The ability to understand and share the feelings of others strengthens connections between leaders and their people,” says Ordever. However, the report cautions against hollow expressions of empathy, urging leaders to go beyond mere sentiment and translate empathy into tangible actions.
The report introduces the concept of ‘practical empathy,’ urging leaders to provide valuable follow-up actions and support after expressing empathy. This approach involves actively listening to employees, understanding their situations, and taking concrete steps to address problems. Suggestions include offering greater job flexibility, granting more autonomy, or connecting employees to specialised help and resources.
Crucially, the report highlights the transformative impact of practical empathy on organizational dynamics. When leaders and organizations demonstrate practical empathy, employees are significantly more likely to feel engaged and fulfilled. The study reveals a staggering 1,149 percent increase in the likelihood of a sense of belonging and an 896 percent increase in the likelihood of employees forming a strong connection to the organization.
Ordever underscores the importance of coupling empathy with meaningful action. “Empathetic leadership is crucial, but it must always be accompanied by meaningful action; otherwise, the leader’s words will appear empty and insincere,” he states. However, he also acknowledges the need for organisational support, including training and clear guidance on boundaries, to prevent leaders from succumbing to empathy fatigue and burnout.
As organisations grapple with the challenge of fostering genuine empathy among leaders, O.C. Tanner’s report serves as a wake-up call, urging a shift from symbolic gestures to a more practical, action-oriented approach to leadership empathy.
Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.