How empathic leadership drives workplace diversity and inclusion

Sympathy and empathy are often confused, but empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection1.

The difference between feeling sorry for someone, and truly understanding their perspective is key to driving inclusion.

For this article AbilityNet asked five accessibility leaders about the benefits of stepping into someone else’s shoes, and how a culture of empathy helps deliver inclusive solutions.

1. What is empathic leadership?

Becoming a more understanding leader relies on being open to someone else’s viewpoint, recognising how this may make someone feel or act, and learning from this.

Listening is one of the most important skills,” says Kush Kanodia (pictured below), social entrepreneur, disability rights campaigner and AbilityNet trustee. “The humbleness is to have that growth mindset. Otherwise you have leaders who think they know it all.” 

Leaders who listen, learn and understand what others are experiencing will build inclusive, diverse and accessible workplace, agrees Laurie Henneborn, a Managing Director at Accenture Research.

Employees must be seen as individuals, not cogs in an organisational wheel. Henneborn quotes her colleague, Shannon Adkins, who advises2: “Make sure that the people you work with and who work for you know that you value them for who they are, not for just what they produce.”  

Listening must be followed by practical action, adds Henneborn: “An empathetic approach leads to actions which can help to adapt or improve the workplace culture and remove physical, digital, social barriers”. For Henneborn, this means going beyond standard diversity targets on quotas and instead “understanding, leveraging and valuing what diverse people bring to the table”. 

Ted Drake, Global Accessibility Leader at financial software company Intuit, agrees about being results-focused:

“There’s a mantra at Intuit to fall in love with a customer’s problem, and not a solution. This pushes us to explore barriers and opportunities to find solutions.”

When considering leadership styles, it’s important to recognise how empathy fits with other attributes. Rama Gheerawo3, inclusive design expert and Director of the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, champions a leadership approach based on a mix of empathy, clarity, and creativity. 

2. How Covid-19 has driven an appetite for empathy

A focus on empathy is timely because the pandemic has encouraged awareness of the greater good, giving more people a sense of the social exclusion faced by disabled people.

An international study4 of 2,000 employees from the US and UK, showed that almost 42% of people surveyed said their mental health worsened during Covid-19.

Evidence of disproportionate impact on disabled people has raised awareness of the adjustments some people need to work from home and of the challenges facing excluded groups. For example 74.6% of people with a learning disability believe their wellbeing has been affected by the impact of coronavirus.

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“If ever there was a time for leaders to exhibit empathetic leadership, it’s through this pandemic," says Accenture’s Henneborn (pictured) “and we have seen evidence of empathetic leadership in action through advancements in accessible tools and technologies which enable remote working and connections.”

For Accenture, this meant avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach to remote working and instead looking into specific barriers for employees with disabilities5. Solutions included polarised glasses or standing desks.

2.1. The empathic approach sparked by Covid is here to stay 

The pandemic triggered the mainstreaming of adjustments previously considered optional.

As Intuit’s Drake says, this will have benefits post-Covid “as people should not have to struggle and justify their need for flexible hours, remote work, captioning, mental health care, personal time off, readable documentation, and personal working styles”.

More specifically, Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of accessible digital services.

Alistair Duggin6, Principal Accessibility Consultant at user experience design agency Nomensa and former Head of Accessibility at the Government Digital Service (GDS), says: “It’s much easier now to explain to people that if the digital service you're making isn’t accessible, that's going to prevent some people from doing what they need to do.”

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3. How empathic leadership benefits employees

There are clear advantages for employees whose bosses not only acknowledge their challenges, but find solutions.

“It’s about understanding the challenges that people face and removing the barriers so people can do things a lot more easily,” says Duggin.

Research7 from accountancy firm Ernst & Young, shows this more sensitive mindset creates trust between employees and bosses, with 90% of US workers reporting how empathic behaviours from bosses brings higher job satisfaction and 79% agreeing it decreases employee turnover.  

3.1. How empathy benefits accessible digital design

There is an inextricable link between good design and having deeper insights into the barriers facing different users of your products.

In practice, this means “doing the hard work to make things simple”, as Duggin recalls of the key design principle at Government Digital Service8.

No designer aims to develop inaccessible products, but this can happen “through ignorance”, adds Duggin: “There are lots of people who will interact with your product which is different to how you’re doing it, and if you’re not considering their needs, you’re going to accidentally put barriers in their way.” For example, deaf users will be excluded from an otherwise accessible online service if one element of the transaction requires a phone call.

Empathy labs, like the one Duggin created for the UK government9, can show how users with different support needs interact with websites. While labs help designers develop websites, they are often criticised as an artificial way to experience disability. For Duggin, labs are one element of accessibility work. At GDS, for example, he also set up a cross-government accessibility leaders network10.

Intuit’s Drake, who previously co-founded Yahoo’s Accessibility Lab, agrees that "accessibility or empathy labs can be a great addition to a company’s accessibility program, but there needs to be a reasonable expectation when they are established.”

Yahoo’s lab was more than an opportunity to experience blindness by, for example, wearing an eye mask, says Drake: “It’s a place for people to test their products with different technologies, do code and design reviews, and understand the complexity of accessibility and inclusive design”. 

Yet to achieve genuinely accessible, inclusive design, people with lived experience must be involved in the process. Kanodia says: “If you’re an empathic leader, you understand that’s the missing piece of the jigsaw”.

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3.2. How empathy benefits leaders

Kanodia describes Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella11 as a leader whose empathy fuels innovation. Nadella himself has frequently described how his experience as the parent of a disabled person12 influences his thinking. Not only, says Kanodia, did Microsoft design its Xbox adaptive controller for gamers with limited mobility, it also made the packaging accessible13.

This approach reaps rewards. An Accenture report14 underlines how Microsoft’s share price has tripled since Nadella - who describes empathy “as an existential priority to our business” - began as CEO in 2014.

3.3 How empathy benefits organisations

The business advantage is compelling, as the Click-Away Pound Survey shows. The cost of people abandoning a retail website because of barriers is now £17.1 billion, according to the survey. Companies that are more inclusive gain a competitive advantage, being four times more likely to have total shareholder returns that outperform their peers, according to Accenture15.

4. How to embed empathy

Experts agree that for the benefits to be realised, empathy has to be both bottom up and top down. Otherwise, Nomensa’s Duggin (pictured below) says “either you'll have senior people really enthusiastic, but people on the ground not knowing how to do it, or you have people on the ground, really enthusiastic, but they're constrained because of the processes put in place by the leadership”. 

At Intuit, Ted Drake and colleagues use various tools for “empathy awareness”, like inclusive design workshops that encourage staff to think beyond their expectations of how a product should work. If employees are given eye masks in workshops or participate in “no mouse Mondays16”, this is not to simulate disabilities, “but to remind the participants to include everyone in product development”.

Creating an empathic approach among managers, supervisors and specific workgroups like human resources and IT is vital, adds Henneborn, and this should be built top-down. Accenture suggests17 that to achieve this involves the inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels of the organisation, incorporating “empathy-building immersive experiences” and accessibility standards awareness into training. 

Accessibility champions are vital in embedding this leadership style. Henneborn says: “Becoming more aware of and engaging in conversations with people who have a variety of lived experiences within this community – including conversations about challenges and barriers faced – will help to embed empathy and drive change.”

Questions about how to incorporate a more thoughtful approach ultimately reflect wider debates about cultural change and true inclusion.

Rama Gheerawo (pictured) explains: “So much of the world is top-down so the question is 'how do you democratise and open-source leadership'? That’s the open-handed empathic question. What are the voices, the structures, the struggles that come from a community that is not often heard?”

Gheerawo refers to the work of the Global Disability Innovation Hub and The Valuable 500 movement aiming to put disability on the business leadership agenda. “Our ambitions should not just be top down, but should be bottom up, back-to-back, front, or from side to side. Everyone should have a voice.” 

4.1. How to tell when empathic leadership works

As for measuring outcomes, one method is to chart the impact on employee job satisfaction. Ultimately, as demonstrated by Microsoft, there will a positive financial impact. The Global Empathy Index18, for example, ranks companies based on metrics including CEO approval ratings from staff, the ratio of women on boards and financial data.

4.2. How to overcome barriers to an empathic approach

Heightened sensitivity to other perspectives can bring benefits, but empathy alone is not enough.

Gheerawo says: “When people talk about empathic leadership, it signifies for me an intention but empathy needs clarity and creativity in order to activate. If you only have empathy, you might be seen as a pushover. If you only have clarity, you could be seen as rational but ruthless. Only creativity and you might be a candle burning itself out. In leadership, you need to balance all three values.” 

Another challenge is when employees are not comfortable with being honest. Accenture’s Henneborn says: “If there is pervasive distrust and fear - lack of psychological safety - in an organisation, efforts made to advance empathetic leadership will backfire.”

4.3. Empathy is essential to accessibility

For this kind of leadership to be successful extends beyond one single individual driving the approach from the top. It demands that organisations encourage diversity across departments, enabling different perspectives and experiences to exist throughout the workforce. 

“Empathy, when it comes to accessibility and inclusive design, is the difference between theory and reality,” says Ted Drake. “We can learn how to make something accessible, but it doesn’t become real until you work with people who use your product in different ways.”

Man and woman in workplace high fiving5 top tips for becoming an empathic leader

1. Active listening
Make time to actively listen and understand people’s needs. Listen more than talk and employees will feel better understood and supported.

2. Needs-based action
A solutions-focussed leader does not simply acknowledge someone’s struggles. They identify and help solve problems that prevent someone from completing a task.

3. Value lived experience and expertise
Walk through services and products with someone who has lived experience of using assistive technology. Harness the potential of accessibility champions to embed the concept of seeing from other perspectives.

4. Build a diverse workforce
Recruiting - and retaining - diverse employees at all levels of an organisation will ensure that empathy is top-down and bottom-up.

5. Empathy alone is not enough
Empathy alone will lead to burnout - constantly connecting emotionally is exhausting. Self-aware empathic leaders have strong governance and clarity of focus as well as an understanding approach.

Further resources 

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References

  1. Brené Brown on Empathy
  2. Accenture blog about resilient workforce
  3. RCA - Rama Gheerawo profile 
  4. Qualtrics blog about confronting mental health 
  5. Accenture bringing accessibility to the workplace
  6. Nomensa - Alistair Duggin
  7. EY Empathy in Business survey
  8. Gov.UK design principles
  9. GDS blog about empathy lab
  10. Gov.UK blog about accessibility meetup
  11. Satya Nadella LinkedIn article
  12. Pulse Seattle mental health care article
  13. Microsoft news about the Xbox adaptive controller
  14. Accenture Responsible leadership report
  15. Accenture Disability Inclusion report
  16. Intuit Coding with Compassion blog
  17. Accenture Accessibility Advantage
  18. Empathetic companies list 2016