4 Steps That Will Take You From Apathetic To Favorite Boss

How leaders can create employee engagement through empathy, one question at a time.

4 Steps That Will Take You From Apathetic To Favorite Boss
[Multiple Choice Answer Sheet: Mizuri via Shutterstock]

Two workplace news stories that recently went viral and have entered the national debate about income equality say something else that leaders may be missing.


The first is of Microsoft CEO Satya Nedella, who told women to have faith and not ask for a raise.

The second is of Tyrel Oates, a Wells Fargo employee who asked for a $10,000 raise over email for himself and 200,000 of his peers; he cited an enormous pay gap between everyday employees and the CEO John Stumpf.

On the surface, the stories simply concern income inequality, but if you look deeper, there is more to these stories than meets the eye. The exchanges are a microcosm of something more fundamental that occurs daily across global businesses: employees want to be heard and leaders don’t listen that well.

To be fair, there are enlightened leaders and organizations that are ahead of the curve and who have institutionalized a culture of dialogue and robust processes that enable leaders to take action based on the collective voice of their organizations. You don’t have to look far to find these organizations–companies like Glassdoor and Great Place to Work catalog them for you.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of leaders have disengaged employees. Look at Gallup’s annual engagement report: 70% of the workforce has been disengaged year over year since 2000. Notably, income is just one of many reasons cited. Others include bad bosses, subpar benefits, no growth or development opportunities, and an unclear connection between daily work and company purpose.


The good news is, although income is a top concern for people, you don’t have to go out and give everyone a raise tomorrow. Instead, find out what other factors are in play by infusing empathy into the process–step into your employees’ shoes and find out what they really care about.

Empathy Works

According to a 2010 research report by the highly regarded Center for Creative Leadership, there is a strong correlation between empathy and effective leadership.

The best way to demonstrate empathy is through active listening. Ask questions that show you care and let employees know you hear them.

The challenges with active listening are twofold: Getting honest answers back from employees and aggregating the core issues and organizational sentiment around those answers.

There is a trust gap between leaders and employees that can be exaggerated with inauthentic one-on-ones–who wants to tell their boss she is the problem? Additionally, the tools we use to measure trends and pull out themes, like surveys, lack empathy and tend to produce a wall of data that is difficult to act on.


So, whether you are practicing empathy and active listening tactically with your team or as an overall organizational practice, try these best practices when asking questions to avoid disengagement and improve overall communications across your organization:

1. Ask Discovery Questions, Not Multiple Choice

This is a simple but important one. Empathy requires truly understanding the point of view of another. You can’t get that by asking employees to pick from a pre-determined set of responses. What if their answer is isn’t on the list? No one wants to be in the “other” category. Be open to discovery. It leads to productive conversation because it gives employees a chance to be heard in their own voice and you an opportunity to listen.

2. Provide Context And Take Action

How many times have you asked employees a question or sent a survey and simply expected them to answer–possibly with the offer of a gift card or something else to entice them? How many times have employees responded and you did nothing with the results? Both practices erode trust. Take time to communicate what you are trying to accomplish, outline your plan of action, and take action. Manage employees’ expectations–you can’t deliver on everything, but you’ll need to deliver on something that’s meaningful to them.

3. Keep Them Focused

The best questions are focused on something of paramount importance (i.e. meaningful to you, employees, and the business). You want to ask questions around true organizational or personal (in more 1-on-1 settings) objectives. When you ask questions that are laser-focused, you convey a focus on priorities, get the conversation moving in a productive direction, and create alignment. Employees appreciate being aligned and knowing what they contribute is important to the business. Enable them to see how their work ties to your organization’s mission and you will have built satisfaction into the process.

4. Stay Positive

This is right out of professors David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney’s Appreciative Inquiry playbook. In short, they posit that momentum and sustainable change require positive affect and social bonding. Strengthen your organization’s capacity: appreciate “the best” of what is, envision what might be, engage in dialogue about what should be, and innovate what will be. Skip your next witch hunt and invite employees to dream with you.


Of course, if your employees deserve a raise, then give it to them. If they’re asking for it, chances are you’re already behind the curve. It’s never too late to start finding out what your people really care about. Lead with empathy. The right questions are your best asset.

Michael Papay is CEO and cofounder of Waggl, a real-time communication tool designed to source feedback and spark employee engagement one question at a time.

David Timby is also a cofounder of Waggl, and has spent more than a decade helping organizations apply technology to engage their employees.