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How to Be CEO (Chief Empathy Officer)

In government, we are the masters of overcomplication. We setup committees, author manuals, and track changes until we’re blue in the face. We write information memoranda, action memoranda, and seek an endless list of clearances for the back pages of each. You would think our routinized collaboration would yield an organizational ethos of communication, mutual understanding, and trust. Typically, it does not.

So who bears responsibility for continuous improvement to ensure that we arrive at the best possible decisions for citizens? In other words, who is working to maximize organizational health?

In many cases, it is someone under the HR umbrella.


At its core, most human resources functions, both transactional and transformational, require a high degree of empathy. Here are three examples:

1) A retiree’s payments were accidentally cancelled when the person moved and no forwarding address was on file. Imagine what it would be like to be that financially vulnerable at an old age, regardless of their ability (or inability) to fill out the correct form.

2) A top-tier college graduate has just graduated with a J.D./M.P.H. and wants to work in government, maybe utilizing their knowledge of the law to secure better healthcare options for veterans. Imagine what it would be like to apply for eight positions and not hear back from a single one regarding the status of their application.

3) A tech-savvy urban planner who’s worked on award-winning designs for cities from London to Shanghai has a boss who insists on paper-and-pencil drawings has shown a pattern of retaliation against iPad-wielding-up-and-comers. Imagine what it would be like to have your boss tell you that technology has led to the downfall of urban design.

While these stories are fictional, they’re probably not atypical. Regardless of what our manuals and protocols say, superhuman empathy should be at the core of our employee services, recruiting and retention strategy.

Do you see a connection between empathy and effective human capital management?

Would you be willing to serve as CEO?

Andy Lowenthal is a public sector strategy consultant. Follow him on Twitter.

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Corey McCarren

Empathy definitely does have a role in organizational health. If employees feel that they aren’t cared about then it’s definitely much more difficult to be motivated and the entire organization suffers for it.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Great post, Andy. I think you’ve placed your finger on one of the core challenges / risks of (government) human resources. When it becomes more about process than people, we end up with unrest and distrust from both prospective and current employees. It might be as simple as “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” as you suggest.

Marsha Stril

I’m definitely the CEO of my office. Emotional Intelligence is the new buzz word these days, but it actually boils down to treating others as you would want to be treated. Somewhere along the line of climbing the ladder, many have forgotten that “golden rule”. Thanks for the shoulder tap.

Thomas W. Thornberry

This is why I’m hoping there is a place for me in government service! Though I am now working on my MPA, I have a 15-year background as a mental health professional. Alas, I burned out within the profession, but I still have deep loyalty to the skills one learns within the discipline and I retain my desire to be supportive of others. If there’s a burgeoning emphasis on support and EQ within public sector service, perhaps I’ll have a ready-made bundle of skills to offer a future employer. Thanks for the update, Mr. Lowenthal!

Andy Lowenthal

Thanks for the comments.

Marsha – I agree that some folks do seem to have forgotten the golden rule. While empathy is an important quality in many professional contexts, I think it’s particularly crucial in HR. Empathy is what unlocks the potential of human capital strategy — even the best-intentioned people strategy can be undercut by an emphasis on “me” or “my team.” Or even worse, inanimate objects like “the regs” or “the manual.” When we retain focus on “you,” “your office’s mission,” or “your job candidates” — that is how we gain real traction.

Thomas – There is indeed a place in public service for those who can prioritize the needs of others over the unrelenting inertia of the status quo. Good luck with your MPA studies.