Has your company reorganized its reporting structure since the onset of the pandemic? New research from Gartner shows that most companies are lagging behind the pace of change when it comes to their employees needs — especially when those employees are managers. In our latest look at how Covid-19 has reshaped the workplace, we’re exploring the power of empathy in management. (If you missed the first article in the series, find out more about the 5 models one expert has identified for the post-pandemic workplace.)Writing in the Harvard Business Review, three experts from Gartner’s human resources division explore what it means to be a manager in the current sociopolitical climate. Brian Kropp, Alexia Cambon, and Sara Clark used the global advisory firm’s data to produce a detailed analysis of which managerial skills have been most critical to helping employees and companies navigate the choppy waters of the pandemic workplace. In all, more than 3,000 US knowledge workers, HR leaders, and managers participated in the survey, providing a broad scope for the trends identified in the research.
It’s critical to understand how much hybrid and remote work have shifted traditional managerial principles:
“Managers used to be selected and promoted largely based on their ability to manage and evaluate the performance of employees who could carry out a particular set of tasks. Within the last five years, HR executives started to hire and develop managers who were poised to be great coaches and teachers. But the assumption that coaching should be the primary function of management has been tested since the pandemic began. Three disruptive, transformative trends are challenging traditional definitions of the manager role.”
Managers need not only coaching skills, but should take a particpatory role in their employees’ wellbeing. “As companies have expanded the support they offer to their employees in areas like mental health and child care during the pandemic, the relationships between employees and their managers have started to shift to be more emotional and supportive. Knowledge workers now expect their managers to be part of their support system to help them improve their life experience, rather than just their employee experience.”
So in addition to the evolution of the managerial skill set, we’re seeing a sea change in workers’ expectations of highers-up.
An even-further reaching Gartner survey from earlier this year of 4,787 global employees found that only 47% of managers are prepared to lead with empathy. So what’s missing?
“The empathic manager is someone who can contextualize performance and behavior — who transcends simply understanding the facts of work and proactively asks questions and seeks information to place themselves in their direct reports’ contexts. Empathy requires developing high levels of trust and care and a culture of acceptance within teams. This is a lot to ask of any individual: that they ask questions that produce vulnerable answers without compromising trust, diagnose the root cause of an employee’s behavior without making assumptions, and demonstrate the social-emotional intelligence necessary to imagine another’s feelings.”
Kropp, Cambon, and Clark’s expanded definition of workplace empathy is especially helpful because they emphasize how important it is to contextualize our experiences in the workplace. Empathy is not a one size fits all characteristic, but more of a set of tools to be wielded with precision.
The authors identify three key action items for managers looking to connect more authentically with their direct reports.
Companies of all sizes will have to reimagine the structure of managerial relationships as the trend for hybrid and remote work continues. Kropp, Cambon, and Clark have identified three key competencies that can be developed along these lines.
Breakups, eulogies, wedding toasts. What do these things have in common? They’re conversations that we rehearse ahead of time — sometimes many times over. Why? Because they’re not only important, but we feel vulnerable when ending a relationship, attending a funeral, or regaling strangers at a wedding with tales about the happy couple.
These same sorts of vulnerable conversations happen in the workplace, but they’re hardly formulaic. So why don’t we rehearse for them? That’s exactly what the experts from Gartner are wondering:
“Asking managers to lead with empathy can be intimidating. Many managers understand empathy conceptually but aren’t sure how to use it as a management tool: Are these questions too personal? How do I create a trusting relationship with my direct reports? Is caring acceptable at work? How do I talk about social justice? It goes against deeply ingrained assumptions that we should keep work and life separate. Managers need opportunities to practice — and, crucially, room to make mistakes — in order to learn to lead with empathy.”
Organizations should create opportunities for their managerial staff to not only learn how to initiate vulnerable conversations, but even let them practice on each other or some volunteers.
“Managers’ motivation to be empathic increases when they have a support system that makes it clear that the burden isn’t theirs alone and when organizations invest in roles designed to support them.”
In other words, managers need love, too! It can feel like being stuck between a rock and a hard place when you need support at work but don’t want to burden your direct reports or complain to your own boss. But suffering in silence won’t produce good results. Companies need to proactively organize educational and networking events for their managers, or create a buddy system so that support is guaranteed.
Even the most empathetic person in the world can’t manage the whole world’s problems. If a manager at your company simply has too many direct reports, all of the networking and training in the world won’t help them.
Gartner’s experts put it even more bluntly: “Managers are already overburdened by the demands of the evolving work environment, and actions that drive empathy are time consuming. While 70% of midsize HR leaders agree managers are overwhelmed by their responsibilities, only 16% of midsize organizations have redefined the manager role to reduce the number of responsibilities on their plate.”
Obviously the first step is gauging your managers’ bandwidth by asking the tough question: Do you have more people to manage than you can handle? But optimizing reporting lines can only improve productivity down the line.
The only constant in today’s business landscape is change. At Blueground, we prioritize flexibility for our guests and our own workforce. All of our turnkey furnished apartments in 15 cities have discrete spaces for life and work, and we have partnerships with food and grocery delivery services, transportation providers, and wellness apps to make it even easier for your employees to maintain work-life balance.