Canadian Underwriter

How to build empathetic managers for the hybrid workplace

April 16, 2021   by David Gambrill

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Canadian property and casualty insurance industry leaders have often talked about the importance of managing with empathy during the pandemic, but empathic managers will become even more valuable in the hybrid workplaces that are expected to emerge after the pandemic is over, according to researchers in Gartner’s HR practice.

“Empathy is nothing new. It’s a common term in the philosophy of good leadership, but it has yet to be a top management priority,” Brian Kropp, Alexia Cambon, and Sara Clark observe in a blog entitled, ‘What Does It Mean to Be a Manager Today?’ published in Harvard Business Review.

“The empathic manager is someone who can contextualize performance and behaviour — who transcends simply understanding the facts of work and proactively asks questions and seeks information to place themselves in their direct reports’ contexts.”

Workplace flexibility will require more empathetic managers in the future, the authors say. “In a 2021 Gartner survey of 4,787 global employees assessing the evolving role of management, only 47% of managers are prepared for this future role,” the researchers state. “The most effective managers of the future will be those who build fundamentally different relationships with their employees.”

That begs the question of how to train managers to become more empathetic, if indeed it is a skill that can be taught. The authors suggest three ways to help managers develop their empathy skills.

Building Managers’ Empathy Skills

  1. Practice vulnerable conversations

Managers can develop empathy skills through “vulnerable conversation practice,” the authors state. In other words, managers practice being vulnerable and empathetic with their fellow managers before they apply what they have learned in the context of their working relationships with direct reports.

“Managers are able to practice their empathy with their peers, asking specific questions to understand their challenges and articulating their own circumstances in response to probes,” the authors write. “Importantly, these types of conversations offer managers the opportunity to fail — and in a safe space — which is an opportunity rarely given to figures of authority. They also help managers feel less isolated by practicing empathy with peers, who are less likely to pass judgment.”

  1. Dedicated support for managers

Managers need support from people in a dedicated role. The responsibilities of these “team success partners,” as the authors refer to these dedicated support workers, include fostering trust and psychological safety, and supporting team health.

  1. Optimize reporting lines

Create more time for managers to interact with their direct reports empathetically by optimizing reporting lines so that a manager isn’t taking on more people than they can handle. “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,” the Gartner researchers observe.

The Evolution of the Manager

Three dynamics during the pandemic have driven the need for managers to be more empathetic, the authors state.

First, remote work means managers and their employees are not working on the same projects at the same time, in the same place. As a result, managers are doing less coaching than they were before the pandemic. They are focusing more on the work output and less on the process to produce the product.

Second, “new technologies have the potential to replace as much as 69% of the tasks historically done by managers, such as assigning work and nudging productivity,” the blog authors say. The cite Gartner’s research studies conducted with 3,049 knowledge workers and their managers across onsite, remote, and hybrid work contexts, as well as 75 HR leaders, including 20 leaders from midsize companies.

The idea is that with tech taking over the manager’s previous roles of job oversight and measuring productivity, managers are freed up to better understand how the psychologies of their direct reports are impacting the company’s performance.

Third, the pandemic has changed employees’ expectations of their managers.

“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,” the authors observe. “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.”

As a result of these dynamics, the authors conclude, in this new era of management, “it’s less important to see what employees are doing and more important to understand how they feel.”


Feature image courtesy of Chernaev

Other images courtesy of (above) and (below)

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