In Search of You, Chief Empathy Officer

By: Bendita Cynthia Malakia

Much was written at the beginning of the pandemic about the need for Chief Executive Officers to be Chief Empathy Officers — leaders whose decision-making truly centers the experiences of its people above all other factors, including profitability.

Many CEOs rose to the occasion, communicating frequently with personnel, permitting flexibility for those with multifaceted lives, donating to organizations to support vulnerable communities, setting aside specific resources to support their employees and their families, rerouting operations to produce or supply N-95 masks, and the list goes on. These are exactly the kinds of efforts that we need to undertake not only during a pandemic, a shifting market, or a time of racial reckoning, but every day.

Notwithstanding that the challenging conditions many workers are experiencing have not been resolved, humans are adaptive and resilient and there is a desire for many to “return to normal,” although we are not societally designed to support that shift.

For many people — those who are caregivers (especially those of us in the sandwich generation); diverse people who experience discrimination, bias, and micro-aggressions daily; and those that otherwise live at the margins of our society regardless of whether they have attained a coveted position at your organization — “normal” was not a place that was supporting our ability to live humane lives. We need a new “normal” taking into account the learnings no one can deny as a result of our present crises.

There are many underlying dynamics that make having empathy be at the core of the business critical.

[Related: Caregiving Will Transform Your Business: Are You Ready?]

“Life” may never be able to be separate from work again.

Your people bring their personal lives and situations to their work, their ability to engage, their ability to be present, and their ability to perform, regardless of whether the organization chooses to recognize it.

The advent of the internet, e-mail, and the ability to work from home means that a line between work and home has been a fiction for many for quite some time. To the extent that the lines existed pre-pandemic, the crisis has obliterated them.

Uncertainty is the norm.

With 2020 giving us a pandemic, financial crisis, and racial reckoning occurring contemporaneously, none of which have any end in sight, we need to recognize that uncertainty is the norm. Our people are grieving the loss of the world as it was and may need long-term support navigating challenges if they are to show up and perform in alignment with our organizational expectations.

For us to understand what they need and have the fortitude and trust to act on it, empathy is key. Our organizations benefit when we offer stability and consistency, especially when we have the ability to direct an empathetic, supportive norm rather than myriad, inconsistent decision-making.

Our diversity aspirations require it.

One of the most poignant lessons of our most recent national racial reckoning is that most non-diverse people have no clue about the lives of diverse people — their challenges and experiences; how interactions in the workplace do not foster inclusion, belonging, and engagement; and how the policies, processes, and programs of our organizations undermine their ability to survive, develop, and thrive.

It takes time to get this level of knowledge, to be able to transform our organizations to be supportive of all of our people, regardless of background. Taking one unconscious bias training, reading a few books, or wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt isn’t going to do it.

At base, it will take empathy to begin to listen with intentionality, acceptance, and humility in order to understand the underlying issues that will allow us to be effective advocates and allies in the fight for equity in our organizations.

[Related: Eight Ways You Can Support Racially Diverse Colleagues at Your Workplace]

Our organizational leaders should have and leverage empathy as a core competency; it should drive decision-making both in substance and in execution. Given how antithetical this is to the way that business has historically been conducted in capitalistic societies, it is critical that there is someone appointed to be the soul of our organization.

Someone to work with your wellbeing and human resources function, someone that works with your diversity and inclusion team, someone that advises senior leadership, someone that serves as a coach and guide for your people, and someone that reminds everyone every day that the people that we rely on to generate profits and achieve larger-than-life missions are human beings.

Lack of empathy can be a direct or indirect result of our biases, assumptions, and how we perceive others and their situations. Mastering or even just making incremental improvements on empathy can ultimately lead to having a better understanding of what others may be going through, even if it doesn’t align with our own direct experience. The Chief Empathy Officer can serve as a guide and role model for other leaders, which can lead to increased allyship and to our people feeling more accepted, recognized, and connected.

If organizations understand their actual and potential role in society, they also will understand that our people are key to that success, that people are beautifully human with complexity that ought to be supported, because they are first and foremost worthy, but also because that happens to be the best way they can offer the productivity and innovation they need to earn or maintain a competitive advantage.

[Related: Don’t Think Race is an Issue at Your Company? Think Again.]

Bendita Cynthia Malakia is all about making sure all people thrive. She focuses her intellect, passion, and experience on working to integrate diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging into the DNA of our workplaces. She is a thought leader, coach, strategist, facilitator, initiative driver, and advocate. Rooted in a legal background, she has practiced finance law at two global, renowned financial institutions and a large law firm. She serves on the Board of Directors of the National LGBT Bar, as an inaugural member of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession’s Social Impact Incubator, and on the executive committees of many formal and informal networking organizations for womxn of color. She is a proud graduate of Barnard College and Harvard Law School.

Originally published at

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