Jacinda Ardern, elephants and empathy

The world is rightly mightily impressed with the way Jacinda Ardern has navigated New Zealand’s response to the Christchurch terror attack with empathy, strength and focus.

Many column inches in business media in 2019 so far has been taken up with companies’ responses to the gender-pay gap saga. The recent Economist article on the progress of women in the workplace says the dial has not moved much in recent years in terms of breaking the glass ceiling. It has been recognised that looking at stats around pay gaps can be misleading in terms of understanding whether companies are doing enough to encourage women to take up senior positions.

More insightful than the pay gaps may be to understand better the experience of women in senior positions, and the teams they lead. RiddleBox’s RBX Index measures the experience of a leader’s team (to produce a score out of 100), and compares it to a self-assessment performed by the leader themselves. Recent data shows that female managers score themselves weaker than male counterparts, but their teams see them stronger:


We are in an age where soft skills and collaboration are the bedrocks of the economy. This needs more brain power than muscle power. Many people will have read Yuval Noah Harai’s bestseller Sapiens. In it he discusses how many of the most intelligent animal species - elephants, bonobos, killer whales, honey bees and lions - thrive in matriarchal communities where the female influences ensure security from tempestuous males and prosperity for the community as a whole.

The reference to Jacinda Ardern’s display of empathy is relevant because RiddleBox’s same recent data set exposes the fact that empathy is by far the most lacking construct among the core tenets of the employee experience, as scored by employees themselves:


Could a male leader have behaved like the New Zealand prime minister? Of course. Do many female leaders lack empathy? Of course. So rather than focus on who is filling what role and what they are being paid, let’s learn more from nature and from shining leadership examples in the news to bring more empathy back to work.

In a perverse way, the leader response to a terror attack lends itself to being empathetic. Most people might feel that day-to-day scenarios in business to do not lend themselves to focusing on feelings and emotions. We would disagree – this focus is needed more than ever. At RiddleBox we see a strong correlation between weak self-confidence in male and female managers and poor empathy scores. Psychology teaches that one can only be truly empathetic to the extent that one appreciates themselves first – and it is here that companies need to do more by giving their managers the right support and instilling in them the confidence to behave naturally (i.e. as a human being).

Anne Benischek is a friend of RiddleBox and is familiar with leading teams in a male dominated environment. Currently at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, she corroborates our message:

“At an individual level, becoming more self-aware and being more empathetic towards oneself has been shown to help people become more open-minded and psychologically flexible. Research suggest that this is at the heart of what makes people in today’s workplaces do well, and stay well. And just as Jacinda Ardern demonstrated so beautifully, this level of self-awareness and compassion (towards oneself and other people) is what allows her to effectively and sustainably relate to, collaborate with, and inspire other people.”  

To finish, based on the actions of our program participants,  here are top 3 popular empathy enhancers for the workplace:

  1. Taking 5 minutes at the start of a team meeting or 1-2-1 to “check in” about people’s health, family and anything that might be preventing them from being “present”.

  2. Introducing rewards that include an employee’s partner or family such as hotel or restaurant vouchers

  3. Promoting more face to face interactions in the office (not Skype/Slack/Email). When meeting someone face to face, keep all devices off the table. Give each other full attention.