Dr Harold Hillman remembers the dismissive response of business executives when he first started talking about emotional intelligence. “There was cynicism and sarcasm. To them, the whole concept of EQ felt soft.”

That was in 1995, the year American science writer Daniel Goleman published his bestseller Emotional Intelligence, arguing that EQ was just as important as IQ for workplace and life success. 

Hillman, who’s now in his 60s and working as an executive coach in Auckland, had just taken on his first corporate role running a management learning centre for US oil giant Amoco. Trained as a clinical psychologist, he immediately grasped the value of a more intuitive, empathetic approach to doing business, but none of it stuck with his hard-charging ’90s colleagues. Lunch was for wimps, emotions for the birds. 

Fast forward to 2021 and business seems to be discovering its kinder, gentler side. Words such as inclusion and wellbeing have been de rigueur in the corporate world for some time, but now, growing attention is being paid to the upside of a more caring leadership style. A 2016 Wall Street Journal article reported that more than 20% of US employers were offering empathy training for managers.

It’s in this more receptive climate that Hillman, author of the Imposter Syndrome and Fitting in, Standing Out, this month released his latest book, Em-Pa-Thy: The Human Side of Leadership. In it he makes the business case for a more compassionate and connected approach to leading teams. 

“Empathy is hardwired,” he writes, “and the business world must now figure out the best ways to leverage emotional connection as a source of competitive advantage.” 

Although he conceived of the book before covid, the pandemic has reinforced its thesis, says Hillman, who cites the greater effectiveness of more compassionate political and business leadership in response to the turmoil of the past 18 months. 

Turmoil is something Hillman knows a bit about. Throughout his early years growing up in a Washington DC housing project, followed by service in the US Air Force and a marriage that produced two daughters, he kept his homosexuality hidden. Even after being appointed to President Bill Clinton’s commission looking at overturning the ban on gays serving openly in the military, he stayed closeted. He came out in his 40s, not long before Fonterra headhunted him to provide an outsider’s perspective on its succession planning. 

Dr Harold Hillman. Photo: supplied.


Now a New Zealand citizen, he has parlayed his academic and work background into a role advising companies about improving their leadership capability, and mined his life for his writing. 

The Imposter Syndrome, which Hillman wrote in 2013 and which drew heavily on his years “living behind a mask”, deconstructed the elements of authentic leadership. His new book does the same thing for empathy, bouncing between personal experience, Aristotle and neuroscience. 

He suggests there are three types of empathy: cognitive (making a genuine effort to understand another’s perspective), emotional (essentially, walking in their shoes), and compassionate (making a meaningful gesture). And he presents a strong case that empathetic leadership really does count. 

In the book, he points to surveys suggesting that employees are far more likely to stay with an empathetic employer. He also quotes a 2018 Harvard Business Review report that empathetic companies outperform their callous counterparts by 20%. Staff engagement is a key factor here: “An empathetic workplace equals an engaged workforce, and that consistently translates to business success.”

It's all very different from the 1990s. “When I joined the corporate space, the word ‘engagement’ wasn’t used – it was ‘employee satisfaction’ we measured,” he says. “But if you can get people more involved in their work, with a stronger sense of purpose, then the job becomes bigger than the pay cheque and you’re more likely to attract and retain talented people. That’s particularly so for Gen Y and Gen Z, who want to be engaged for their thinking, not just their doing. A big part of empathy is giving people a sense that they belong, that they matter.” 

Other studies on empathetic leadership and engagement cited in Em-Pa-Thy point to increased sales and better-performing managers of product-development teams. “Around innovation, especially, there’s a clear correlation between people who feel engaged and that they can really push into the status quo,” he says. 

Can empathy be learned? Hillman’s reading of the science is that empathy is innate – he goes into some depth on neural pathways – but that we make choices about whether to act on our feelings. In the business context, “you can definitely build muscle around your empathy gene”, but it requires self-awareness and an intrinsic motivation to change. 

“Oftentimes it means letting go, trusting others, letting others have a voice. The vulnerability factor is huge,” Hillman says. “As a leader, I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, I don’t have to always come up with the decisions. I can wear my mana well, and open up latitude for others to help me be successful. Certainly, if you always have to be right, then you’re going to struggle in today’s world leading younger people.”

Other components of an empathetic approach include active listening, being present, suspending judgement and showing respect. Hillman talks, too, about mindfulness, and in the book likens empathy to an “exchange of energy, a give and take between two or more people”. 

Too touchy-feely? “The idea with authenticity and empathy is not that all of a sudden we have Kumbaya workplaces where it’s all affiliation and warmth and results don’t matter,” he says. “You have to keep a nice balance on driving performance, but there are ways to do that without it feeling like an assembly-line mentality.”

As well as international clients, Hillman has worked with Kiwi organisations of all shapes and sizes, including such big fish as Air New Zealand, Fonterra and Television New Zealand. Does he think the New Zealand business culture is capable of evolving more empathetic leadership? 

In answering, he recalls his first encounters with the tall poppy syndrome and the team-first Kiwi diffidence. There’s been no NFL-style showboating in the end zone at any All Blacks test he’s attended, he says. 

“The thing that struck me is how well we wear our humility here. And that’s good, to a point. But we can do a better job of stroking the esteem of employees to get a more tangible lift in engagement. I often say to CEOs, ‘You don’t need a budget for engagement, you just need to walk around telling people how they made a difference.’ Saying ‘thank you’ on occasion does help!”

EM-PA-THY: The Human Side of Leadership by Harold Hillman PhD, is published by Bateman Books, $29.95.