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Don’t Fake Empathy – Really Walk in your Employee’s Shoes

As employees start to return to normal after the government shutdown, managers are finding it difficult to effectively communicate with employees.

Leaders are tasked with toeing a fine line between talking about the impacts of the shutdown and engaging people in the work that needs to be done.

The key to effectively navigating the line is to be as genuine and communicate as clearly as possible. Employees will not respond to fake empathy. Shawn Morris is a Principal at Deloitte and runs the Human Capital Practice. Morris told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER Program that leaders have to be there for their employees now more than ever before.


“First and foremost you have to walk in your employees shoes, so that it doesn’t feel like a fake-empathy. You have to understand both on the professional and personal level what that individual is going through. That is a fine line, because you can’t overstep the line on the personal side. Understanding if that individual on your team is looking after an aging parent or a sick child at home and then understanding on the professional side is critical,” said Morris.

Back to work but has it ever been a more complex time?

“I think it is useful as we start this conversation to really look at the context and the background of what got us here, today. Three years of pay freezes, furloughs for many this year and according to the OMB director there could be potential furloughs in the next calendar year for our federal workers. Added to that you have what I would call a political discord towards or against federal workers, these things all add up to be a really tough time to be a federal worker,” said Morris.

What’s the shutdown effect on morale?

“Look at the end of the day, the shutdown was a major disruption to the system. And whether you were furloughed or not this was a challenging time to work in the federal government. I think often that people who weren’t furloughed have been forgotten in this process. They were there keeping the lights on, while others were furloughed. They took on a greater burden. It was a very challenging situation for both sets of groups. And itself because of the way it was rolled out, it could create tension between those two groups, if we are not smart in the way we deal with it,” said Morris.

There are three immediate, not costly, engagement techniques for managers to employ:

  1. Recognize and empathize with the workforce. There was this great picture of the Vice President at EPA welcoming workers back to the office. He brought in donuts and was there to greet those individuals as they came in. I know that happened across the federal workforce in those first two days. But what level of engagement do you go with after those first few days? When people get back into the grove of their day to day job. It is ultimately thanking the staff on a regular basis. It is encouraging more senior staff who may have been through one of those furloughs in the past to share how they dealt with the backed up workload when they got back to the office. But most importantly I think it is really listening to the concerns that the staff has. Both on the professional and personal level.

  2. Create opportunities for your strongest performers to gain impactful experiences. Invite them to meetings perhaps they wouldn’t have been invited to previously. Introduce them to more senior members in an agency. Ask them to solve to harry problems that they wouldn’t have been asked to solve before. This is all about opening up their network within the agency and continue to build upon their skills. In doing so you highlight their importance to the mission that the government serves.

  3. Communicate the importance of the agency’s mission. I think this is something that a lot of people talk about and I think is probably overplayed. Federal employees become engaged and join the federal service because they understand the importance of the mission. But all of things that have gone on over the last several years have diminished that light a little bit. There is a little bit of energy that can be gained coming out of the government shutdown. That is it is very plain that citizens here in the US have a better appreciation of the mission that our federal workers support. Great examples are in the National Parks where states paid for them to open themselves.

Deloitte has created a framework called Moments that Matter. It is actually a ten step framework where each step builds upon another.

“You can imagine there are a number of different steps you need to go through in that 10 step framework but first and foremost you have to walk in their shoes. So that it doesn’t feel like a pho-empathy. You have to understand both on the professional and personal level what that individual is going through. That is a fine line, because you can’t overstep the line on the personal side. Understanding if that individual on your team is looking after an aging parent or a sick child at home and then understanding on the professional side if that individual feels that they are being underdeveloped or under tossed,” said Morris.

Many feds are saying, “I am done with government.”

“The economy has come back around. The exodus of baby boomers that we’ve heard about for the last 10 years is actually happening. I believe one of the challenges that we will working with the government on is how to persuade certain individuals to stay so that they can transfer certain knowledge before leaving and the other is understanding the multi-generational needs that our federal workforce has. Change the lens and understand the multi-perspective of generations. For us to have to attract the best talent into the government which is now coming from millennials, managers have to be able to turn a problem on its side and look at it through the lens of that new group,” said Morris.

Leadership matters most

“There are some fantastic leaders in our federal government. What we are offering here is just a structured way to go at more softer elements of leadership. Things we typically forget about in our day to day,” said Morris.

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