How to Empower Employees Through Empathetic Leadership

In midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jim Keane, President and CEO of Steelcase, awoke one morning to surprising news: a decision had been made to shut down one of his manufacturing plants while he slept.

Far from upset, Jim felt proud that the vision he had set out to create for his company culture was coming to fruition. “It was the right decision, and I’m glad they didn’t wait for me to wake up,” says Jim. “The people who know the best thing to do for your customers are the people who are standing on the front lines right now.”

When Jim took over as CEO, he wanted to lead differently. He didn’t want to be the CEO who called all the shots; instead, he wanted to be the CEO who empowers others to lead.

Jim has been working at Steelcase for more than 20 years, where he has honed his empathetic and empowering leadership style. In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, Jim shares advice for leading with humility, why listening is more valuable than speaking, and how he empowers his employees to make decisions in the face of ambiguity.


Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

 

Listen more than you speak

“Senior leaders are often expected to show up at a meeting so that they can talk,” says Jim. He’s frequently invited to meetings to speak, whether it’s about the company’s upcoming strategy, a recent acquisition, or reflections on last quarter. However, he believes this is a missed opportunity: “You need to listen so that you can develop extreme empathy.” When he’s in front of people, he wants to use that time to hear what they’re thinking, what they’re working on, and what they’re worried about.

As a leader, it’s too easy to jump to conclusions. “A bad habit of leaders is we cut people off because we think we know how they’re going to finish the sentence, and we're already trying to solve their problem,” says Jim. Instead, it’s important to pause and reframe your mindset. “Don’t listen with the intention of trying to solve things,” he suggests. “Listen to understand and feel what a person’s feeling.”

If you feel like you don’t have time to listen, it’s helpful to actually carve it out. “Build it into your day,” advises Jim. He recommends changing the meeting agenda so you have time to listen, and so you can facilitate a discussion rather than answer all the questions.

Outside of meetings, Jim strives to enable moments of serendipity. In the office, he changed the layout of the space, so that executives’ offices would be on the main floor of the building. They are located near their Innovation Center, where all the product development happens, so it’s a high-traffic area where employees naturally walk through. “We did that on purpose because we wanted a chance to accidentally run into people in an unscheduled way,” explains Jim. Not only does this change in environment help leaders gain a natural pulse on the organization, but also visually conveys a message of flattening the organization.

As a leader, he intentionally goes to the same coffee bar as his employees, standing in line to naturally catch up with them and ask how their days are going. Through these unplanned interactions, he’s able to introduce himself to employees who he might not meet normally in a meeting, as well as hear about what’s going on or projects that people are working on.

It’s harder to create moments like these online, but Jim thinks we can be more thoughtful about how we approach video meetings. Rather than jumping straight into the agenda during a call, you can take a few minutes beforehand to check in on how people are doing. “I value those five minutes before the meeting starts,” he says. “That's when I often have a chance to talk to whoever is going to be presenting, maybe give a little encouragement. We lose those moments now if we just click on and click off.”

 


“The best leaders start with humility, believing they don’t know all they need to know before they start making decisions.”
Jim Keane, President and CEO of Steelcase Inc.


 

Value empathy

Empathy isn’t about just being nice, it has a clear business value. On Jim’s first day as CEO, he was asked to present his strategy to 250 leaders in the company. Instead of jumping straight into a speech, he decided to restructure this time. He sent the leaders to small group roundtables, where they spent an hour talking to 5-6 other employees to learn about their personal experiences at the company.

After the activity, Jim noticed the tone in the room had shifted. Rather than perceiving their company as flawless, these leaders began to realize many things needed to change. They heard stories about their employees working second shifts at night or struggling to balance work with childcare. Later, when Jim shared his vision on improving their culture, the ideas didn’t come from him, but directly from the senior leaders who experienced the need for action straight from their conversations.

“I didn't have to convince them of what we needed to do. They were saying, ’What are we going to do about what I just heard out there?’” recounts Jim. “Empathy is super powerful, and sometimes it just takes that moment where it’s actually built into the schedule.”

However, Jim clarifies that empathy doesn’t mean making everyone happy; the best decision might not always be the majority opinion. “Sometimes, you know one group of people might think a decision is great, whereas another group will really be disappointed and hurt,” says Jim. “When you practice empathy, you start to feel all those feelings, and you’ll want to make a decision that pleases everyone. But that’s not the point.” Instead, he considers empathy as a way of being fully informed in your decisions. You won’t be surprised by how people react to your decision, or the impact it has, because you’ll have already spent time listening and engaging with them.

 

Decisions are opportunities to learn

“The best leaders start with humility,” says Jim, “believing they don’t know all they need to know before they start making decisions.” In his mind, senior leaders aren’t responsible for telling people what to do. Their job is to create an innovative culture by putting the right people in the right roles, allowing them to make decisions, and helping them review the outcomes of those decisions, so they continue learning.

“Every day, there's somebody who ought to be empowered to make the right decision based on what that customer is saying to them right now,” he says. He emphasizes the importance of following key principles rather than scripts and strives to equip his employees—especially those on the front lines—with the skills they need to make good decisions.

To help employees feel comfortable with making decisions, Jim frames them as learning opportunities. “Bad decisions happen,” acknowledges Jim. “The only thing that’s wrong with a bad decision is how long it takes you to figure out it’s a bad decision because you need to change course.” Ideally, employees should feel comfortable making a decision, checking in on how it’s going, and making adjustments along the way. “That’s the way most things happen,” says Jim. “People like to tell stories about certain business decisions they made, but real life is usually not quite so linear.” If you do make a poor decision, the best next step is to reflect on what you could have done differently and how you can learn from it. Use that decision to help you establish a culture of learning.


Leadership today is not about knowing all the answers, but turning uncertain conditions into learning opportunities. Through our Foundations in Creative Leadership Certificate, you’ll learn a unique approach to leadership that will help you tackle today’s complex challenges by navigating ambiguity, collaborating across diverse perspectives, maintaining momentum with optimism, and leading with authenticity and empathy.

Courses Starting Soon

Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate
Human-Centered Service Design Course from IDEO U