Simply ordering CEOs to be more empathetic isn’t that helpful. To lead with empathy and build a positive organizational culture, CEOs should draw on a cognitive power that great leaders already possess in spades: curiosity. 

“You don’t understand what I’m going through.” “You don’t really care about me and my colleagues.” “The culture in this organization is terrible.” “I’m leaving.”

These and other complaints from employees who are defecting to competitors (or out of the workforce entirely) signal a growing dissatisfaction with a majority of organizations, for which many workers are blaming leaders. Indeed, in a February survey of 15,000 U.S. workers by Gallup, only 25% of the participants “strongly agreed” that their employer cared about their wellbeing: That’s half of the percentage who said so early in the pandemic.

This situation with dissatisfied, disengaged, or departing employees only adds to the set of challenges, unprecedented in their complexity and magnitude, that CEOs are grappling with now. The requirements of leadership are a growing list: pressure to satisfy an ever-broader array of stakeholders, knock-on effects from the pandemic, including supply chain dysfunction, inflation, the rising cost of labor, and the necessity to connect authentically and empathically with employees.

The CEO job just got harder

Under these conditions, it’s no surprise that many CEOs feel uncertain about how, exactly, they should lead. What worked for them in the past is not working for them today. Findings from AlixPartners’ 2022 Disruption Index suggest that CEOs are experiencing increased job insecurity, with 72% of participants worried about losing their jobs to disruption—a considerable increase over the 52% who expressed this same worry one year ago.    

Clearly, the CEO job has gotten a lot harder. Add to that the growing population of Gen Z workers, and the job just might feel overwhelming. Chief executives must continue doing what they’ve always done: shouldering responsibility for setting direction and steering their organizations to greater growth and enduring success. But now, they also have to excel at things like empathy, at connecting with their people in a meaningful, authentic way. The increasingly strident calls in the business press for CEOs to “be more empathetic,” and leadership development workshops focusing on empathy have many CEOs feeling not a little frustrated. As noted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “More business leaders are trying to learn how to show understanding and compassion to buck up pandemic-weary workers.”

The trouble with empathy

Empathy—the ability to understand others’ experiences, perspectives, and emotions, and to demonstrate a real connection with them—is a key element in emotional intelligence (EQ), one of the three defining capabilities of transformative leadership. When senior executives, starting with the CEO, demonstrate an appreciation for people as more than mere units of production and connect with their employees at a meaningful level, they establish the beginnings of a positive culture in which people feel understood, valued, and supported. Companies that consistently model these leadership behaviors foster cultures that in turn more readily attract and retain the talent they need to succeed in a highly disrupted and increasingly competitive world.

But many CEOs are unsure of how empathy works in practice, and how to show it in a natural way. Is presenting a caring demeanor enough, or should they be doing more? Some are skeptical about the very nature of empathy; the notion may feel “squishy” or seem like a form of window dressing needed to present the right impression. They wouldn’t feel genuine adopting overtly empathetic behaviors, or they want to learn how to do so, but they need a playbook. Simply telling them to “be more empathetic” is essentially no help at all.

Get curious

Being empathetic isn’t as simple as just listening, nodding in an understanding way, or presenting a kindly demeanor. What’s more, empathy isn’t a feeling in itself; nor is it a willingness to wallow endlessly in emotions. Rather, it’s a cognitive ability, whereby you actively decide to discover what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes—to understand their situation, not to “feel their pain.”

You don’t need a playbook to master this. What you really need is something you already have in spades: curiosity. As a CEO, you’re already curious by nature—about markets, strategy, competition; in short, all things that affect your business. You can become just as curious about the people who are around you and who work for you—their experiences, aspirations, worries. And by doing so, you’ll gain insights that you’ll naturally want to act on. Through your innate curiosity, caring for others, and your desire as a leader to stand up for your people and bring out the best in them, you’ll see in most situations how you can act on behalf of your people’s welfare. It all starts with being curious about others, and then using that understanding to take positive action.

What does getting curious look like?

A few tips can help you activate your curiosity about others so it makes an impact. First, ask others open-ended questions that invite a meaningful response, and listen mindfully. Questions such as “How are you doing with your work schedule?” “What do you find most difficult these days?” “What’s life like for you right now?” or “How would you like to see your career develop?” are all fine places to start.

As with anything interpersonal, be sure to show genuine interest in the responses, including paraphrasing what you’re hearing and resisting any urge to interrupt. Ask clarifying questions and even guess at how they might be feeling – it’s OK to be wrong. It’s your interest that lets your employees know that you’re thinking about them. If you feel it’s appropriate and a good rapport is established, don’t be afraid to go a bit deeper, such as “What do you think is causing you to feel that way?” or “What do you think led to this situation?” During these exchanges, be sure to spend more time listening than talking.  

Most important, pay attention to when you’re learning something you didn’t know before. For instance, someone tells you that they have to take multiple busses to get to work, which made their commute not only time-consuming but also dangerous and frightening amid the worst of the pandemic. Or you hear that a recently divorced employee is caring for an ailing parent while also raising two children alone, and struggling to complete the training necessary to reach his career goals.

These conversations empower you to step out of your own world and into another person’s world. And what you learn can inspire you to help by taking positive action. You’re a smart leader who cares about your employees, so ask helpful follow-up questions like, “How can we help make things easier?” or “What could our company do to help you achieve your goals?” The answers can point the way to practical solutions, such as suggesting a more flexible work schedule or connecting a person with a mentor or useful support resource.

Curtis Rising, an executive advisor, sees curiosity as a root cause of CEO success: “Curiosity is about gathering a diverse array of perspectives, a key in leadership. Yes, curiosity is made up of deep listening and awareness, but it is the opposite of passive. Curiosity means constantly digging for root causes and the perspectives that haven’t been brought to the table yet. It means celebrating the views that complete the picture. And having the CEO ask genuinely about the perspectives and experiences of others is a magnet for top talent and rocket fuel for the culture.”

Strengthen your curiosity “muscle”

Though it’s relativity easy to activate your curiosity about others, several forces can lead to setbacks. For example, rising higher in an organization can make it harder to understand what others lower in the reporting hierarchy are experiencing. As you gain more perks, you might forget that others in the organization don’t have such advantages. It becomes all too easy to make a misstep, such as complaining that your driver showed up late that morning or that your assistant is away, comments that would likely sound insensitive to those at a different level in the organization.  

To avoid such missteps, sharpen your self-awareness through regular feedback mechanisms such as 360-degree surveys on your leadership style. Model a growth mindset, by being open about your results and sharing with people what you are working on. Regularly conduct in-person “brown bag lunches” or round-table forums with employees from all levels, to give them opportunities to share with you how they’re doing.

Hold your team accountable

It’s also crucial to hold every member of your executive team accountable for doing the same thing; demonstrating positive curiosity about others. Ask them how curious they are about the people reporting to them, and what they know about the individual stresses and struggles of their teams. Do they care? Are they motivated to find out? If not, then why are they in a leadership position? Merely posing such questions can teach them to value curiosity and to use it as a leadership tool. And when you teach curiosity to your team, your team becomes a force multiplier—further fostering a positive organizational culture.

.     .     .

When you get empathy right, everyone wins. Your organization wins, because the best leaders and employees want to work there and stay, even when times get tough. Leaders and employees win, because they feel supported and know you’re helping them meet or even exceed expectations. And you win, because unlocking empathy’s power satisfies the deep desire that every great CEO has: to do the right thing for others. This reciprocity forges a stronger and closer connection between you and those you’re leading. And in a world where people leave their boss, not their company, that connection may be your most powerful secret weapon yet.