Do CEOs have an empathy problem?

CEOs have a lot on their plates — but their anxieties might make them appear cold to employees, management consulting firm Korn Ferry reported this week.

An annual survey of 3,000 human resources professionals found that one-third do not consider their CEO to be empathetic — a 16 percent decline from the same survey last year. 

This perceived drop is confined to the CEO role, as 92 percent of the same professionals considered their other colleagues to be empathetic "despite the tough economy," according to Korn Ferry. 

Research from the firm shows that empathy in a CEO correlates with employees' perception of them. Empathetic chief executives are more likely to be successful long-term leaders, garner positive job performance ratings and see high retention in their workforce. Plus, as layoffs strike  more organizations — hospitals and health systems included — CEOs need workers' support through difficult decisions. 

"They're climbing Mount Everest alone," said Jane Stevenson, vice chair and global leader of Korn Ferry's CEO Succession practice. "They will need people with them all the way to the top."

The empathy decline in CEOs may be explained by the stressful environments they navigate day-to-day, according to Margie Warrell, PhD, senior client partner in Korn Ferry's CEO Succession and Executive Leadership practice. A December poll found that 70 percent of chief executives are burnt out and would leave their current job for one that better supports their well-being. 

"People running on empty don't have a lot of empathy, because they're phantom selves," Dr. Warrell said. 

The firm recommends that CEOs look closely at their feedback reports from staff and try to balance their executional and empathetic leadership styles. It is important to see workers as human beings, not just "human doings," according to  Kevin Cashman, global co-leader of the firm's CEO and Enterprise Leader Development practice.

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