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The Employee Experience Platform | Culture Amp
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Sophia Lee, author

Sophia Lee

Writer, Culture Amp

As a company leader, there will be times when your employees experience some form of suffering. Mass layoffs at your organization, global pandemics, and social unrest are just a few things in our recent history that might be impacting your workforce.

During these times, one of the most critical things that leaders can do is share in the suffering of their employees. In this post, we’ll explain what this means and what shared suffering looks like in action. 

The importance of shared suffering in the workplace 

Negative events are bound to happen. A leader’s response to those events can be revealing. When they choose to be in denial about employee suffering and take no action to help (or focus on making sure they don’t feel any of the pain), it breeds resentment and distrust. On the other hand, when a leader shares in the suffering, it can strengthen relationships and demonstrates a willingness to work together to get through hard times. 

So what exactly does shared suffering look like in practice? Typically, leaders aim to:

  • Reduce the pain of others. Even if they can't make the problem go away, leaders should do whatever they can to mitigate the pain of their employees.
  • Be present. Leaders need to listen to how their employees are suffering and acknowledge that it’s real. The worst thing a leader can during trying times do is to ignore or minimize the problems of their workforce so they can avoid confronting hard truths.
  • Lean in. Leaders shouldn’t use their position of power to avoid or lean away from sharing in pain – especially those caused by their own decisions. 

There are a few reasons why company leaders should share in the suffering of their employees:

  • Leaders are responsible for the wellbeing of their employees and should also recognize that they can’t thrive unless their employees are thriving as well. 
  • They’re in a position of power and have the resources to more effectively deal with negative events. 
  • Times of crisis present critical opportunities to inspire more trust in leadership - both in the moment and in the future. This trust is ultimately what’s needed to keep people performing their best when challenges emerge. Unless you’re planning to jump ship, you’ll need the trust of your employees to weather your next storm. 

What shared suffering doesn’t look like 

Before we dive into recommendations on how leaders can better share in the suffering of their employees, let’s take a look at what it looks like when a leader avoids this responsibility. Below are a few examples: 

  • The CEO of a manufacturing company demands that their front-line workers return to work to make up for lost revenue from COVID-19. But they don’t provide additional compensation, sick days, or health coverage. Even though they know their employees are unhappy with their situations, they avoid addressing employee complaints and don't distribute an engagement survey because they don't want to hear the tough feedback. 
  • An employee asks his manager for a more flexible working schedule because he’s overwhelmed from juggling his job, family duties, and caregiving responsibilities. But his manager refuses to help because it would be too much trouble to shuffle the team’s schedules or speak with another leader to reconsider their flexible working policy.
  • The founding team of a startup has made the tough choice to lay off 40% of the organization due to a series of poor business decisions. But they don’t want to bear the weight of the decision, so they have their team leads and managers deliver the news instead and don't take responsibility for the situation.

These are clear instances where leaders are shirking their responsibilities and the negative consequences that can come as a result – despite the fact that sometimes leading people to victory means first leading them through defeat.

Tips for leaders to better share in the suffering of their employees

Below are tips for leaders to better share in the suffering of their workforce: 

Acknowledge the suffering  

As we mentioned before, leaders may be tempted to respond to painful situations with avoidance or denial. This can take many forms: glossing over negative news, masking negative events under the guise of “business decisions,” or simply refusing to acknowledge that employees are having a tough time. The problem with this approach is that the leader is taking advantage of their position of power to shield themselves from reality (not to mention that it makes employees feel overlooked and not heard).

Instead, we encourage leaders to acknowledge that what they’re asking of their employees isn't easy but is necessary and valued. Or that the current situation employees are facing is incredibly difficult and that they take responsibility for it. Your employees will be much more forgiving when you practice vulnerability and take ownership of your mistakes compared to if you try to cover them up. It also signals to employees that they can own up to their mistakes quickly with an expectation of just fixing them, which builds trust both ways.

Talk (and listen) to your employees 

As a next step, talk to your employees to better understand what they are feeling and how you can best relieve them of some burden. You can do this through 1-on-1 conversations, employee surveys, or a combination of both. 

Just as important as talking to your employees is listening to what they have to say. Many times, leaders will make the mistake of taking up space while trying to explain themselves or provide justifications. But what your employees actually need is for you to actively listen as they express their fears, frustrations, and concerns. 

Take action 

Finally, the most important thing leaders can do is to take action, based on the feedback from your employees and your own honest observations. The type of action you take will vary depending on your specific situation, but keep in mind that the goal is to reduce pain, be present, and lean in. Even if you can’t completely fix the problem, you can try your best to mitigate as much of the suffering as possible. Your employees will value both the solution and the sense of community created by your active involvement and efforts.

Shared suffering in action  

Now that we’ve outlined the steps leaders can take to partake in shared suffering, let’s take a look at what this might look like in action. Below are a few real-life examples of company leaders who shared in the suffering of their employees: 

  • Carta’s CEO recently had to lay off a portion of their workforce due to COVID-19. In his announcement to employees, he said: “It is important that all of you know I personally reviewed every list and every person. If you are one of those affected it is because I decided it. Your manager did not. For the majority of you it was quite the contrary. Your manager fought to keep you and I overrode them. They are blameless. If today is your last day, there is only one person to blame and it is me.” He took ownership for his own actions and therefore shared in the suffering of his organization.
  • Ben and Jerry's used to have a pay inequality policy that outlined a 5 to 1 rule to limit the pay of its CEO to the company's lowest paid worker. It required the CEO to raise the pay of his employees to create a pay raise for himself. This demonstrates that the leaders are invested in the wellbeing of their employees – not just promoting their own self interests. 

As we’re seeing today with the pandemic, tough situations are sometimes unavoidable. But what is within a leader’s control is their ability to acknowledge, lean into, and relieve as much of the suffering for their employees as possible. 

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