Skillsoft Blog

Why Lean On just might be the new Lean In

By Tara O’Sullivan 


Sheryl Sandberg’s latest book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, came out a few weeks ago. While I loved every word, it is, at times, a tough read. In 2015 her husband, Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, died suddenly while they were on vacation together, and she writes about this devastating loss, the impact it had on her and their two young children, with honesty and candour.

The title reflects the universal truth that life doesn’t always follow a desired, tragedy-free, path. And, that for a variety of reasons, we must all be prepared with a Plan B and should, if for whatever reason we need it, grab this alternative with gusto and determination, regardless of how we feel about it, or even whether we believe it has any merits.

Now Sandberg is not your average individual. She counts Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg among her close friends and moves in circles most of us only read about. However, her experience of loss showed how no life is immune to tragedy. In true Sandberg fashion, she decided to use her rather fortunate and unique position to help everyone to draw attention to the irrefutable fact that an employee’s personal life can and will crossover and impact their professional one. That instead of leaning in, now people could and should be able to lean on their employer, should the need arise.

Sandberg is Facebook’s COO. As this is her biggest area of influence, she naturally started her crusade there. Facebook now has extended bereavement leave for all – with the hope that by addressing the issue in her book, other companies will follow suit.

And we’re not just talking bereavement leave, we’re talking about companies being more understanding, empathic, towards employees who find themselves having to shift to Plan B for any number of reasons – divorce, death of a family member, illness, or financial woes.

And research backs her up:

  • Research completed by Businessolver, an SaaS-based benefits administration firm, shows that nearly 80% of employees would work more hours and 60% would take a pay cut to work for a more empathetic employer.
  • The Workplace Empathy Monitor also found that 98% of HR professionals and 92% of employees surveyed said empathetic employers drive retention.
  • The top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index 2015 increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings (defined by market capitalization.)

I know we talk a lot about Millennials and what they look for in a prospective employer. Belinda Parmar, founder and CEO of The Empathy Business, an advocacy agency which publishes the annual ‘Global Empathy Index’  and is a leading voice for the inclusion of women in technology, had this to say:

“Corporate empathy was easy to ignore in the past. But social media and an increasing desire from Millennials for meaning and authenticity at work have turned everything upside down. We, as customers and employees, demand a human face from the companies we interact with. Companies can no longer get away with just providing goods and services. We expect suppliers and employers to deliver their messages with humanity and authenticity — with personality and feeling. In other words, with empathy.”

Empathy though, like life itself, is not without its complications. Sandberg touches on this regarding how people deal with life’s challenges differently. Not everyone will want to discuss their personal matters at their workplace and they must be allowed to keep these lives separate, if they want.

Empathy is one of the most under rated aspects of managing people. By treating people like human beings and asking about their dreams and life goals, you can help them get experience and expertise to help them get there.

Before jumping to action, my suggestion is to start by simply taking a look at your company culture; review work policy regarding time off for bereavements or other personal reasons and then determine what you need. What you can change or offer to reflect or demonstrate empathy.

Empathy in the workplace may still seem a tad utopian; but I believe if more people like Sandberg shine a spotlight on the idea, it will become as normal and pervasive as casual Friday or standing desks. Look forward to your thoughts on this #wellbeingwed.

Tara O’Sullivan is the Chief Creative Officer for Skillsoft and SumTotal.

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