The Other, Other ‘B Word’

As an advocate for gender parity and diversity, I strive to broadcast a message about the immense economic potential of advancing women in the modern workplace. Often, my content is couched as a rallying cry for more men to become allies on the journey toward gender equality. Aside from the obvious egalitarian reasons for having more women in leadership, it also makes sense from a purely business standpoint. If organizations had gender-balanced leadership teams and equally valued the contributions of both sexes, they would be better suited to adapt and thrive in a complex, volatile global economy. The advantages of diversity in business have been studied for years and are well-documented: There would be higher employee engagement, less turnover, and greater profitability.

Considering the clear benefits of diverse leadership, why are there still so few women in C-level roles today? Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, founded the Lean In non-profit organization to address this issue, and one of their campaigns is to ban the ‘B word’. No, not the one that rhymes with pitch. The other ‘B word’, bossy, is a term applied to young girls and women who are decisive, confident, and direct in the way they relate to others. It’s a pejorative used to discourage females from acting contrary to societal norms; i.e. that they should be agreeable and docile. Of course the male-driven business model encourages cutthroat competition and a commanding leadership presence, creating a Catch 22 for women who hope to be successful. If they try to fit in as one of the boys, they are perceived as aggressive and difficult. But if they are simply authentic, their kindness and cooperative nature work against them. The Ban Bossy project aims to empower women of all ages so they embrace their innate leadership qualities and are recognized as leaders in their own right. While this is an important effort in the push for gender parity, I worry that the message can be misinterpreted by some women who take it as free license to be the other, other ‘B word’: bully.

I stumbled across a YouTube video secretly recorded by a Georgia middle school janitor as he was being reprimanded by the principal for leaving work 8 minutes early. (You can watch for yourself here.) Throughout the meeting, the principal was rude, condescending, dismissive, belittling, and downright cruel. She repeatedly asked the janitor what his hours were, interrupted him as he attempted to explain the situation, and spoke to him in a manner unfit for conversation between grown adults. It was obvious from her smug demeanor that she was accustomed to using fear and menace to bend employees and students to her will. I’ve worked for and with women like this throughout my career. They either adopt this ‘dragon lady’ persona as a means of survival in a company or industry dominated by men, or it’s just their personality. This management style is unacceptable regardless of a person’s gender, but, as I mentioned before, there’s a double standard for women. They’re damned if they do act like men, and damned if they don’t.

How, then, can we ensure equal representation of women in leadership while discouraging bully behavior? Well, there are plenty of excellent books on the former, so I’ll tackle the latter because I believe bullying is an employee engagement issue, not merely a gender issue.

In my employee engagement practice, I teach managers to embrace a mindset of empathy, curiosity, and humility. Without these virtues, you are a just boss, not a leader. And you certainly won’t earn the respect or engagement of your employees if you forgo true leadership in favor of being a bully.

Empathy is our ability to relate to and feel for others. It’s what makes us human. When we empathize with people and “put ourselves in their shoes”, it causes us to think more carefully about how we behave and speak toward the the individuals in our lives. When meeting with an employee to have a potentially difficult conversation, empathy can make the difference between a mutually acceptable outcome and a result that leaves one party — invariably the lower-ranking person — feeling unheard, disrespected, mistreated, or cheated. Had the principal in the video practiced empathy by asking herself how she would want to be treated if she were the janitor, things would have gone much differently (and saved the school quite a bit of embarrassment).

While empathy means having an open heart, curiosity is keeping an open mind. Being a curious leader requires a willingness, even a desire, to hear positions other than your own. Doing so gives you an opportunity to build stronger relationships with employees. By asking them for their views, their feedback, their stories, and then listening without judgement or interruption, you are positioning yourself as a leader who wants to collaborate on solutions, instead of just bark orders. When leaders curiously listen, they are sending a message that they wish to co-create a positive and engaging employee experience. Woodrow Wilson once said, “The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.” The principal made it clear during her meeting with the janitor that the only voice she cared to hear was her own.

Curiosity also means questioning your motives and behaviors. This takes a high degree of emotional intelligence that comes from being humble. Humility allows us to challenge the ego and make decisions that are more effective in the long run, as opposed to satisfying our own immediate need to feel important. Many people, when given power over others, tend to let it go to their heads at the expense of the relationships with those in their charge. They haughtily believe their management title grants infallibility and deity; that it somehow elevates them to a higher stratum than the peons being managed. But we are all flesh and blood. None of us is any better than the rest. What makes a leader is not her status, nor her ability to control and punish. The measure of a great leader is seen through the eyes of people whose lives are better for having followed her.

In order for us to have an impactful conversation about developing more women into leaders, we need to agree that bullying is the antithesis of effective leadership. We need to hold everyone in management positions, gender notwithstanding, to the highest standards of conduct and preserve the integrity of what it really means to be a leader. It will take a dramatic shift in the business world, one that champions the merits of empathy, curiosity, and humility. To start, those with the power to make this change will have to be another ‘B word’: brave. Courageous leaders — both men and women — must shape the modern workplace into an environment where bullies aren’t welcome, one where success doesn’t come without kindness.

Are White Men Really Losing in the Diversity Game?

I recently gave a talk about employee engagement and organizational culture in Boston. Near the end of my presentation, the topic of gender parity came up for discussion and I shared my thoughts on Massachusetts’ new law (which goes into effect next year) prohibiting employers from asking about a job applicant’s salary history. This is the first statute of its kind in the country and other states are already in the process of passing similar laws. Personally, I think it’s a step in the right direction toward the greater goal of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Women have traditionally been paid less than men in the same role, so lawmakers’ intent is to eliminate this pay gap by requiring employers to compensate workers based on their value, not their previous salary. I feel proud to live in a state that leads the way for diversity, inclusion, and equity because I believe in the importance of all three. Massachusetts has historically been a forerunner for worker and human rights, notably passing the nation’s first minimum wage law which specifically guaranteed women pay commensurate with the cost of living.

Of course, the concepts of diversity and gender parity are not without detractors. After my talk, one of the audience members approached me to express his concerns. There were quite a few more women in attendance at this event, so I wasn’t terribly surprised that he waited until most of the room cleared before sharing his views. The man told me that, after a long career in the tech space, he had come to resent all of the diversity initiatives being foisted upon him and other members of his cohort — highly-skilled, white, middle-aged, men — because they made him feel deprived of opportunity and that his contributions were cheapened. “I’m so sick of this diversity stuff”, he said.

Rather than educate him on the business case for diversity and spark a lengthy debate that would keep me from my lunch (I can get hangry), I decided to take the path of least resistance and just hear the guy out because he seemed dead set on his opinion. I listened to him lament the diversity-driven hiring practices that favored women or minorities over equally qualified white men. He also argued that women taking maternity leave should not be paid as much as men because they aren’t adding the same amount of value to the organization during their absences. As he continued, a thought struck me: Men like the one with whom I was speaking aren’t trying to put anybody down. They just prefer a meritocracy wherein people are rewarded based on what they can do, not what they look like. At best, they simply see no personal value in supporting diversity efforts. At worst, they feel discriminated against when organizations take any kind of affirmative action to elevate marginalized groups of employees.

This all comes down to the challenge of engaging Caucasian males in the push for a more diverse and inclusive modern workplace. Deloitte recently made headlines and raised eyebrows when it announced the dissolution of its Employee Resource Groups. Their objective in doing so is certainly laudable: Bring white men into the diversity conversation by replacing ERGs with inclusion councils to convene employees from disparate backgrounds, including senior executives. That way everyone can gather and discuss how the organization could better serve diverse talent and customer bases. But will it work? I used to co-lead a Women & Allies ERG, and I will admit that both interest and impact among men were pretty low. So maybe it is time to rethink the way we foster diversity and inclusion.

A good place to start is taking a look at the concerns white men are raising. There’s a lot to unpack just from my relatively brief conversation with the man at the event. For example, let’s follow his train of thought about maternity leave and pay equity a bit further. What if a woman isn’t pregnant when she’s hired? Should she still be paid less based on the possibility that she might get pregnant and take a leave of absence down the road? If she chooses to have a family, should she be deemed less eligible for a promotion because her commitment to the company seems lacking? What if her husband decides to take paternity leave while she goes back to work right away? Should his pay get docked? What about a man who plans to adopt and needs to take time off from work to bond with his child? The argument that women should be paid less or treated less-favorably because they have child-rearing responsibilities just doesn’t hold up. It oversimplifies a very complicated issue and puts people in the unfair position of having to choose between job and family.

Still, thoughtful examination won’t necessarily stop white men from feeling like they are somehow being slighted by all this focus on diversity. There are plenty of reasons behind their resistance, such as men’s propensity, on average, toward being competitive and not wanting to lose their position in a hierarchy. Whatever the cause, it’s important to involve them in the process and help them understand that diversity and inclusion are meant to benefit everyone, not unfairly give preference to one group over another. Perhaps Deloitte is in the right vicinity, if not on the right track, with its new D&I strategy. Discussions about issues pertaining to diversity shouldn’t be relegated to peripheral interest groups who haven’t the captive audience nor the organizational clout to make a difference. Those at the top (roughly 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs are white men) must be involved and invested. It’s simply a fact that diversity is and should be a critical priority in today’s ultra-competitive, hyper-connected business climate. Consumer preferences can ebb and sway, leaving rigid, old-school companies unprepared to respond. Businesses need new and different perspectives to stay relevant. They need a diverse workforce to survive.

I once had a manager who told me “Business is all about relationships.” It really is. The relationships a business forges with its customers are crucial; that’s a given. But first leaders have to establish and nurture relationships with the people who connect the business with its customers: its employees. Diversity isn’t about reaching quotas or excluding members of a certain group. It’s about cultivating an environment that attracts and engages the best talent from all walks of life. It involves building strong relationships with those employees so they feel inspired to help their company thrive in a complex and diverse global economy. That’s how the best organizations will win. And who doesn’t like winning?

You Can Lead a Horse to Water… But Can You Make an Employee Engaged?

There’s an old proverb used by many to describe the leader/follower dynamic with respect to employee engagement: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” This is a way of saying ultimately people will only do what they choose, even if you show them the way. In other words, just as a horse has to choose to drink, an employee must choose to be engaged.

Well, yes and no. Getting the horse to drink is the desired outcome, but what happens up to and during that point will influence his willingness to do so.

  • If you’ve been running the horse ragged without any time to recuperate, he won’t have the energy to make it to water.
  • If you’ve been shouting at the horse and beating him with a stick, he won’t trust you no mater where you’re trying to lead him.
  • If the terrain is rocky and you force him to walk in busted, rusty horseshoes, he isn’t going to be all that thrilled about going the distance.
  • If you feed the horse 1 pound of oats a day when he really should be getting 3 pounds, he’s going to focus on finding food elsewhere instead of following you.
  • If the water is polluted or tastes funky, the horse isn’t going to drink.

Here’s what I’m getting at: If the employee experience at your organization sucks, employee engagement isn’t likely to happen. Too many leaders fall into the trap of thinking a lack of engagement is the employee’s fault; that they’re choosing not to be engaged. Take a good look at what it’s like to work for you before making that judgement. And start with the basics — a reasonable workload, an empathetic leadership style, effective tools to get the job done, fair pay, and a healthy work culture. Then make adjustments if anything is wrong. As a leader, it’s your job to create an employee experience that makes them want to go above and beyond.

Horses need to be enticed, not forced, to drink water. What kind of employee experience are you creating, and is it enough to entice engagement? Remember, employees don’t engage themselves. Leaders engage employees.

Why You Shouldn’t Discount Glassdoor Reviews

I’ve seen a number of recent posts on LinkedIn questioning the value and veracity of Glassdoor company reviews. Specifically, the posters dismiss negative reviews as emotional rants from current or former employees who simply have axes to grind. At best, this is dangerously naive. At worst, it’s terribly arrogant.

No company is perfect. And many have serious cultural or operational problems that employees are too afraid to discuss with management, so they resort to anonymous forums like Glassdoor to vent their frustrations.

I’ve worked with such organizations where any employees who raised concerns were labeled as “complainers” and either ended up quitting or were forced out the door.

Organizations that treat their talent in such a way deserve negative Glassdoor reviews in which employees use inflammatory language like “psychological torture” and “evil management” to describe their experiences.

Unless you currently work – or until recently had been working – in that reviewer’s same position, for their same manager, you really have no basis to presume that their words don’t ring true. I challenge anyone – whether you’re in HR, middle management, or executive leadership – who questions another’s negative work experience to go sit at that employee’s desk for a few months, working for the same boss under the same conditions, and then reconsider whether or not their Glassdoor review counts.

There’s a difference between a review written by someone who simply says “this place sucks”, but leaves no other details about their function or experience, and a reviewer who cites specific examples of why working for their employer was so awful. The latter review is more credible, even if its content paints a less-than-flattering picture of the organization.

Just because you don’t like what someone has to say about your company, doesn’t mean it’s not the truth.

Perhaps the reason these issues had not previously come to light in employee surveys or discussions with management or Human Resources is because there are cultural barriers preventing such candid discussions from taking place.

Most workplaces today operate within the cultural bounds that dictate employees should not tell management what isn’t working, unless they feel like jeopardizing their careers. I have worked in environments like this. Although I’m not inclined to write a review (positive or negative) for these employers, I have read through some reviews in which employees shared very specific criticisms that I knew were, indeed, factual, not just disgruntled fabrications.

Instead of discounting a negative Glassdoor review, use it as a wake up call that there really might be something wrong in your organization. The fact that an employee didn’t trust management or Human Resources enough to have an open and honest conversation should set off an alarm indicating your culture is unhealthy.

Job seekers today do use Glassdoor to determine if your organization is a good fit for them, whether you like it or not. Ignoring negative reviews won’t change that.

Attracting and retaining top talent requires more than just pretending everything is A-okay and firing anybody who refuses to drink the Kool-Aid. The practice of reinforcing a broken culture eventually backfires. Just look at what happened to Uber.

By the time you read about it on Glassdoor, the damage is already done. But don’t make it worse by ignoring the bad news or trying to sweep it under the carpet. And certainly don’t try to retaliate by pursuing some form of legal action, because that will just make you look like a bully who can’t take feedback – basically reinforcing what your current and former employees already know to be true about the way you treat talent.

Your people can give you critical insights into facets of your organization that are preventing it from being a great place to work and conduct business, such as ineffective technology, disengaging management practices, or strategic missteps that impact customer service.

Today’s ultra-competitive business environment makes it hard enough for organizations to hire and keep the best people. Don’t make things more difficult by refusing to accept some hard truths about what it’s really like to work for you.

Take feedback from your employees as a gift, and invite them to give it as often and honestly as they need to; then act on it! That way they won’t feel like they have to anonymously post it online for customers, candidates, and the whole world to see.

8 Leadership Communication Habits That Disengage Employees

One of the crucial elements of an engaging work experience is quality, effective communication between leaders and their employees. Communicating to engage requires managers to be aware of not only what they say, but how they say it, how often they say it, and the impact of their message in terms of employee engagement.

Unfortunately, whether through training or because of their personalities, many in managerial roles have developed disengaging communication habits that they might not be aware are undermining employees’ trust and commitment.

Below are eight of the most common habits, the underlying message each communicates, and better approaches leaders can take that improve engagement by focusing on how employees will perceive a particular message and move forward after receiving it.

1. Multitasking during conversations

You might be really busy. You might have a handful of burning tasks that each require your immediate attention and working on them while having a chat with an employee might seem like a good way to make a dent in your endless to-do list. I get it. Nobody will fault you for wanting to streamline your work day. But doing so at the expense of giving an employee your full attention can have unintended negative effects on his or her engagement. Also, it’s just plain rude. For example, if an employee comes over to your desk and you’re typing away on your computer, even if you say “I’m listening”, the fact that you aren’t facing her says that you’re not fully engaged in the conversation. Why should an employee be engaged in her work if her boss only pays partial attention when she needs to talk?

The message it conveys: “You’re not important enough for me to give you my undivided attention.”

What to do instead: Drop whatever it is you’re doing, face your employee, and have a conversation without interruptions or distractions. It’s that simple and it will show that you are engaged.

2. Listening to respond

Active listening is fundamental to effective communication, and for good reason. Listening with the intent to understand, instead of listening to respond, helps to build a positive, trusting relationship between communicators. This kind of relationship must be in place if leaders expect to engage their employees as partners in action. But some managers do not listen to understand; they look for loopholes or weak spots or inaccuracies in what an employee says so they can exploit those weaknesses and “win” the conversation. Or they are so anxiously chomping at the bit to insert a rebuttal that they miss much of what their employees are trying to say.

The message it conveys: “I don’t care about what you’re saying. I care about showing you that I’m right/smart/in charge.”

What to do instead: Take off the boss ear muffs so you can actually hear what your employee is trying to say, wait for her to finish talking, and then acknowledge what she said by asking for clarification and paraphrasing back what you understand to be her message.

3. The ‘deflect and pivot’ maneuver

Often done when listening to respond, managers use this Jedi mind trick to shut down an employee’s argument when they know she is making a valid point, but they just don’t want to admit defeat because the boss is always supposed to be right. Rather than conceding the employee’s position, the manager ignores what she says and pivots to another topic that provides a tactical advantage. For example…

Employee: “We don’t have the resources needed to meet all of the demands of this project. We just can’t keep up with all of the customer issues being raised with the number of people we have trying to respond to them.”

Manager: “I’ve noticed you have developed an attitude problem. I think it’s time to put you on a Performance Improvement Plan.”


The message it conveys: “I can’t handle the idea that you’re right and I’m wrong, so I’m just going to ignore your point and talk about something else that will reinforce my authority over you. Ha! Boss: 1. Employee: 0.”

What to do instead: Acknowledge what your employee says. Even if it stings a little to be wrong when you’re a leader, at least start by indicating you’ve heard her point. Then try something different. Instead of responding to protect your position, practice a little curiosity and humility. Ask for more information. And if you’re wrong, admit it. Leaders don’t always have to be in the right, but they do have to be humble and support their employees if they want them to be engaged.

4. Condescension

When you talk to your employees like they are two-year-olds, it drives a wedge between you that makes it nearly impossible to have constructive, engaging conversations. The exasperated tone, the downward vocal inflection, or using their name when you’re looking right at them – these mannerisms sound like a parent chiding her toddler for drawing on the wall with crayon again. You hired adults. Talk to them like adults. Don’t treat them like children even if they haven’t met your expectations.

The message it conveys: “I’m better than you are simply by virtue of my title, so I’m just gonna go ahead and talk to you like you’re beneath me. Mmkay?”

What to do instead: Treat employees as business partners whose expertise and contributions are just as valuable to the organization as yours. Use the same tone and demeanor as you would if you were speaking to the CEO.

5. Intimidation

I’ve talked before about how ineffective and damaging intimidation is in the long run. Yelling, threatening, glaring: whatever weapon you choose to put to an employee’s head will certainly make her do (or not do) what you expect, but only to avoid immediate danger. I promise you that doing so will have cancerous effects that far outweigh any temporary benefits or results. Intimidation buys you begrudging compliance today at the cost of engagement thereafter.

The message it conveys: “I’m the boss! I speak loud and carry a big stick to protect my fragile ego. Cross me and I will destroy you.”

What to do instead: Practice empathy. Do you enjoy it when someone tries to intimidate you? Do you feel inspired to partner with them toward achieving a common goal? Didn’t think so. Always lead with kindness.

6. Under communicating

Keeping employees in the dark about important matters, whether intentionally or because you’re too busy, can degrade trust and engagement. If your team lacks guidance and information about the organization, their roles, or their performance, then they can’t contribute their best toward executing priorities. I was guilty of this during my time managing a team. Luckily I worked with some truly awesome and self-directed individuals, but I still should have been more visible and communicative. Even if you’re totally swamped and there just seems to be no time to meet with your employees, you have to make time. If they feel informed and included in the goings on of the team and the organization as a whole they are more likely to be be engaged.

The message it conveys: *…Crickets*

What to do instead: Talk with your employees individually and as a group about what engaging communication looks like for them. Do they benefit from long team meetings, brief Scrum-style check-ins, regular one-on-ones? Whatever approach works best for you and your team, stick to it and make communicating a priority.

7. Over communicating

At the other end of the communication spectrum is the tendency for many managers to inundate their employees with messages throughout the day. They e-mail, call, e-mail some more, instant message (or “ping”….ugh), pop up from their desk like a whack-a-mole a few dozen times, and then lob seven or eight more e-mails each with different questions to answer and conflicting demands that are all top priority. Here’s the thing you might not realize: every time you interrupt an employee with another message, it takes her away from whatever task she was working on (probably another burning issue you threw her way) to deal with it. This can be frustrating, exhausting, confusing, and, of course, disengaging.

The message it conveys: “I don’t respect your time or boundaries. You should always just drop everything and respond to my e-mails. Why haven’t you responded to my e-mail yet? I’m going to send you another e-mail asking you to respond to my e-mail.”

What to do instead: Practice reflection and restraint. Do you really need to reach out and ask your employee that question, or is it a bit of research you can do on your own? And please, for the love of all that’s good, stop flagging everything as high importance. Seeing multiple emails from you with that red exclamation point is enough to make your employees scream.

8. Overwhelming energy

Nonverbal cues like body language and facial expression, as well as verbal cues such as tone of voice communicate more about a speaker’s message than what is actually being said. There is another element that encompasses both types of communication and it can have a huge impact on how your employees perceive you when you interact with them: your energy. If you come charging up to them and rapid-fire questions with a tone and demeanor that feels like you’re at DEFCON 1, you’ll immediately overwhelm them even if you’re simply checking in. Using language that implies a sense of panic, like “Oh my God!”, will incite feelings of panic among employees.

The message it conveys: “Ahhhhhh! We’re all gonna die!”

What to do instead: Relax. Move slowly with calm, reassuring body language while respecting employees’ personal space. Speak slowly with a positive tone and cadence. Unless it’s a true emergency (a real emergency, like the building is on fire; not a business “emergency”, like the VP is demanding a status update from your team) take your level of excitement down a few notches and be the beacon of unperturbed, positive energy that your employees need.


What do you think? What are some other communication habits that leaders should break in order to better engage their employees?

About the author: Jonathan D. Villaire is a bridge-builder, truth-teller, and advocate for empathy who helps leaders understand how to effectively engage their employees and, more importantly, how to stop disengaging them. He founded Cognize Consulting with the aim of giving supervisors, managers, and executives a new perspective on employee engagement: See employees as human beings, not as human capital. Understand how to create an employee experience that increases retention and attracts top talent. Engage employees with a leadership mindset of empathy, curiosity, and humility. He is a speaker, coach, blogger, and author of the upcoming book The Stepford Employee Fallacy: The Truth about Employee Engagement in the Modern Workplace.


Why Employee Engagement Is Not a Two-way Street

A relationship is often described as a two-way street. Both parties engage in a fair and equal exchange in order to sustain the relationship while drawing mutual benefit from it.

Business leaders tend to think of employment relationships in this conditional sense. An employer pays its employees wages in return for their labor. It’s a simple economic exchange that reflects a transactional view of relationships as two-way streets; each side giving and taking.

The quid pro quo model holds up until the concept of employee engagement is introduced into the mix. Leaders who hope to capture the holy grail of employee engagement, discretionary effort, but still view the relationship as a two-way street will find it nearly impossible to engage their employees. That’s because employee engagement requires employees to feel inspired rather than obligated. Engagement happens when an employer creates a work experience that’s inspirational for employees.

If leaders were to apply the conditional relationship approach to their employee engagement strategy, they would gain no traction at all.

Here’s how it would look in practice:

“We’ll pay you a fair wage, but only if you work extra hard to earn it.”

“We’ll give you the tools you need to do your job, but only if you generate plenty of revenue to offset the cost.”

“We’ll support your career and personal development, but only if you give us a substantial return on our investment.”

“We’ll inspire you with a clear vision for our company’s success, but only if you agree to never question us or tell us what we need to change.”

“We’ll treat you like a competent and trustworthy adult, but only if you conform to our ideal of how employees should think and work.”

“We’ll promote work-life balance, but only if your life is balanced in favor of the organization.”

“We’ll recognize and reward your efforts, but only if you consistently exceed our stratospheric expectations for performance.”

“We’ll provide opportunities for advancement, but only if you jump through every hoop we tell you to.”

“We’ll value you as a unique human being, but only if you add value as predictable human capital.”

There’s nothing inspirational about working for an employer who turns the most basic elements of a positive employee experience into a series of transactions. Employees won’t want to go above and beyond for a leader who will only treat them well if the company’s needs are met first.

Look back over the nine statements above. Now remove everything from ‘but’ onward and add this instead:

“…because we want you to feel inspired and proud working here. We want you to help us make this an amazing place to work, and to let us know how we can get even better.”

You see, employee engagement isn’t transactional. It’s inspirational. It’s a virtuous circle that begins and ends with leadership. Leaders set the tone and strategy for their organization, hire the best people for the right roles, treat them well, give them the tools and support to develop and become leaders in their own right, and the cycle continues. Employees feel inspired to go above and beyond for an organization that cares about them, and they provide honest feedback along the way for areas needing improvement. Leaders then implement changes to create a more engaging employee experience. Virtuous circle.

Therein lies the unique nature of employment relationships. Leaders need employees to be committed to the organization, but they must first build that commitment with a great work experience.

And that’s no two-way street. It’s inspirational leadership through and through.

About the author: Jonathan D. Villaire is a bridge-builder, truth-teller, and advocate for empathy who helps leaders understand how to effectively engage their employees and, more importantly, how to stop disengaging them. He founded Cognize Consulting with the aim of giving supervisors, managers, and executives a new perspective on employee engagement: See employees as human beings, not as human capital. Understand how to create an employee experience that increases retention and attracts top talent. Engage employees with a leadership mindset of empathy, curiosity, and humility. He is a speaker, coach, blogger, and author of the upcoming book The Stepford Employee Fallacy: The Truth about Employee Engagement in the Modern Workplace.

Why There Can Be No Engagement Without Empathy

People often confuse the terms ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’. That’s understandable given both involve emotions, and, for many, emotion is an uncomfortable topic, especially in the workplace. Sympathy refers to one’s ability to feel sorrow for another’s misfortune, whereas empathy is the act of putting one’s self in another’s emotional space in order to understand what they are feeling. Empathy is incredibly powerful because it forges a connection between parties who otherwise might not see eye to eye, but rely on each other to accomplish a common objective. If that objective were, say, ensuring continued success and innovation for their organization, then that company’s leaders would have to somehow inspire their employees to reach that goal.

That’s where the concept of employee engagement comes in. Engaged employees perform better, generate more innovative ideas, and contribute to their organization’s overall success because they are inspired to do so. Where does this inspiration come from? Not from within, as so many leaders incorrectly believe, and certainly not if these leaders are reinforcing a culture that disengages employees. If leaders do not empathize with their employees and use that empathy to build an engaging culture, then they will have a workforce that merely goes through the motions.

The relationship between empathy and engagement becomes obvious when you explore the impact that the former has on the latter. Below are three ways that being empathetic toward your employees yields a much more engaged workforce.

Empathy turns “us” and “them” into “we”

There has always been an understood tension between leaders and their employees; generally accepted as the nature of the employment relationship. Labor vs. management. Worker bees vs. those at the top. Us vs. them.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Effective leaders know how difficult it is to execute organizational goals if there is a constant feeling of distrust between their managers and workers. The most forward-thinking leaders know that engagement is the key to fostering trust and inspiring their employees to perform. Unfortunately, the traditional “us vs. them” work dichotomy, by its nature, is not conducive to an engaging culture in which employees would want to bring their A game on a consistent basis.

But the power of empathy — putting yourself in your employees’ shoes and then flexing your leadership interactions, behaviors, and decisions — is its ability to bridge the gap between leaders and their employees. Empathy builds a teamwork mindset among colleagues who mutually respect and trust one another, and work together toward achieving goals.

Caring for your employees will inspire them to care for your customers

The idea of customer care being subordinate to employee care isn’t new. Sir Richard Branson’s guiding philosophy for Virgin Group has always been to put employees first. By caring for his employees, he inspires them to care for Virgin’s customers. It’s a leadership attitude that stems from practicing empathy.

When employees feel a genuine sense of caring from their leaders, they are far more likely to put forth the effort to create positive, memorable experiences for customers. Caring for employees means treating them how they would like to be treated. This runs contrary to the typical command-and-control style of leadership that most managers have been trained to believe is the only way to lead. They treat employees like children or criminals, instead of valued partners, and then expect them to provide amazing customer service. It simply doesn’t work that way. Humans don’t work that way.

As human beings, we choose to engage with one another based on a number of different variables, such as our background or our interests. We also engage emotionally. When your employees feel an emotional connection to the organization, a sense of being cared for, they will bring their best selves to the workplace and keep your customers happy.

Empathy cultivates loyalty

One of the common criticisms of the modern workplace is the lack of loyalty from employees. Frustrated leaders struggle to retain the best talent and shake their fists complaining: “There’s no loyalty anymore!” Actually, there is loyalty. But, like trust, loyalty needs to be earned. The best way to earn both is by empathizing with employees, rather than treating them as disposable ‘human capital’. Showing loyalty to employees through empathy leads to engagement and, as a result, cultivates loyalty from employees.

Loyalty does not necessarily equate to longevity. And that’s okay. Leaders should strive to foster loyal relationships with employees by establishing goodwill. Even if those same employees decide to leave the company and pursue other opportunities, they will have felt cared for and understood during their time there. Their loyalty then translates to recommending qualified candidates from their network for open positions, speaking positively about the organization to those within and outside their sphere, or even returning someday with all of the valuable knowledge they have gained in the interim. Loyal employees certainly do stay with organizations that treat them well, but even if they don’t stick around, they will carry with them the goodwill that only empathy can create.

For however long your employees stay with the organization, it is important that they know you empathize with them and care for them as individuals. While they are your employees, they will give you their very best if, and only if, your organization’s employee value proposition — what makes someone want to work for you — includes a culture in which its leaders are highly empathetic. After all, why would someone want to work for a boss (or an organization) who doesn’t care about them?

Bringing it all together

What separates mediocre leaders from engaging leaders is their ability to empathize with their employees. The same can be said for organizational cultures. A culture in which employees are engaged as partners in action is the result of leaders coming to terms with the fact that employees are human beings. Humans are emotional creatures who determine how much of an investment they want to make in a particular aspect of their lives based on how it makes them feel. If they feel valued, understood, and treated well, then they will go above and beyond for their employer and its customers. All it takes is a little empathy.

To learn more about the power of empathy in the workplace, check out the Empathy Business’ Empathy Index 2016 and see how the world’s largest organizations scored in building empathetic work cultures.