Why Don’t Leaders Care?

Uncaring leaders drive high turnover and poor mental health. But what makes it so hard for leaders to care? Here are 5 common barriers.

Zach Mercurio, PhD
7 min readApr 24, 2023

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There’s no shortage of “be caring” advice for leaders — and for a good reason. Surveys show that about 50% of people don’t feel valued at work, almost 30% feel “invisible,” and just 24% think their employer cares about their well-being.

For organizations, the caring deficit is consequential. Feeling disrespected and undervalued can be almost ten times more predictive of turnover than pay or benefits. One study found that “uncaring leaders” was one of the most common reasons people left a job without another lined up.

For individuals, feeling uncared for by their leaders can be crushing.

A new study found that for 70% of people, their direct leader had a more significant impact on their overall mental health than their doctor or therapist. A 2021 American Psychological Association study found that 59% of employees experience adverse mental health outcomes because of work experiences. Between 2014 and 2018, rates of depression and anxiety among employees rose by 18%, and between 2022 and 2023, rates increased by 25%.

A key contributor to a higher risk for clinical anxiety and depression is “anti-mattering” — feeling insignificant to others.

There’s a reason why the national suicide prevention lifeline is titled the “You Matter Lifeline.” When people feel like they matter to others, studies show that objective indicators of chronic stress abate. Research including thousands of adolescents and adults repeatedly shows increased feelings of mattering correlate with a lower risk of depression.

The solutions proposed to leaders for addressing the caring crisis are maddeningly simple: Recognize people. Check in with people. Show empathy. Be compassionate.

My job is to research and help leaders do these things, but my second grader gave me pause when he asked me, “So, is your job just to help people be nice to each other?”

Well, yes.

Modern leadership development seems akin to restoring elementary school morality.

However, his question gets to something more profound and raises more important questions we’re not asking enough: Why don’t or can’t leaders care? What makes it hard for leaders to do something so simple? Where have we gone wrong? Why do I have a job?

I refuse to believe leaders wake up in the morning and say, “Hey, today I’d like to be an ‘uncaring leader.’”

I’ve spent the last several months researching the root of uncaring leadership in work organizations. Five significant barriers to caring kept emerging.

To create more caring in work, we must create systems that enable caring.

1. Skill: Common Sense Isn’t Common Practice

As my second grader reminded me, caring is “common sense.” It’s “common sense” that we should be kind to people, respect them, check in on them, support them, or affirm them. But look at your “to-do” list today. Which one of those actions made it on your list?

There’s a gap between what we “know” is important and what we strategically and intentionally do. If you need evidence, scroll up and read the statistics in the first few paragraphs. The “common sense” approach to caring isn’t working.

Good intentions require great skills.

You (or your organization) probably evaluate skills aimed at performing and producing. Do you assess your ability and skills to care? What is your personal and professional development plan for noticing others or ensuring they feel heard? What is your technique for authentically checking in on people?

One of the most prominent mistakes leaders make is obsessing about lagging indicators like performance and productivity and neglecting the leading indicator of everything: people. That’s why we tend to have processes and practices for everything else in organizations except for what genuinely matters to human beings.

When it comes to leadership and caring for others, we can’t rely on people’s “intuition” anymore.

A leader’s craft is people. Great leaders hone their craft.

Intuition doesn’t scale. Practices and skills do.

A recent survey found that 60% of employers say new employees (and future leaders) lack basic interpersonal skills.

Developing the “hard skills” to care at all levels must be a priority.

A key question: What are the skills, practices, and processes you have in place to ensure the people around you feel cared for?

2. Attention and Energy: The Scarcest Resources

Human attention and energy are the scarcest resources on the planet. Leaders care when they have the attention and energy available to care.

A new Mckinsey study found that middle managers only spend about 28% of their time managing people. Individual contributor (31%), administrative (18%), and strategy-related tasks (23%) consume the rest.

The increasing expectation for caring without increasing resources that enable caring can result in burnout and the depletion of the very energy leaders need to redeem workplaces.

That’s likely why 35% of managers say they feel burned out often or always. Leaders are human beings with vivid and complex lives and face the same stressors outside of work as everyone else.

Sometimes, with added responsibility also comes added invisibility.

Caring for people takes time and energy. We must ensure our systems create more time and regenerate the energy to care.

A key question: Are we creating time and regenerating our (and our leaders’) energy to care?

3. Environment: What’s Possible and What’s Determined

Environment impacts leader behavior in two ways: It can make behavior possible (called environmental possibilism) or determine behavior will occur (called environmental determinism).

If I have an hour on my calendar every week that’s free, my environment makes it possible for me to check in with my team members. But suppose my organization requires me to have regular check-in meetings with my team members and evaluates me on the quality of my relationships with them. In that case, the organizational environment determines that the behavior will occur.

Many environmental conditions in organizations don’t even make it possible to care. If you’re in a distribution center that tracks every minute of your day, taking the time necessary to care becomes nearly impossible. If you’re the clinical leader in a hospital and you’re understaffed and over patient capacity, the possibility of caring behavior occurring is significantly reduced.

Many environmental conditions in organizations make it possible to care but leave enacting care up to chance. For example, suppose leaders are expected to create psychologically safe climates, but they’re not measured and evaluated on how safe their people think it is to speak up. In that case, behaviors of ensuring people feel heard are possible but not determined.

We can’t add more for leaders to “do” without ensuring the environment makes the action possible and determines it will happen.

Formal or informal rewards are one of the most potent ways to influence human behavior through an environment.

We can’t rely on leaders to be morally good in a system that incentivizes them not to be.

If we incentivize and promote self-serving achievement and acquisition, we’ll get leaders who achieve and acquire for themselves. But if we recognize, incentivize, and promote caring behaviors, we’ll likely have more caring leaders.

A key question: What environmental factors may be getting in the way of making caring behaviors possible? Are there ways to reconfigure the environment to ensure caring behaviors occur?

4. Underestimating Impact: The Self-Esteem Problem

At the individual level, many leaders underestimate their impact on others’ lives, preventing them from initiating many small acts of caring that go a long way.

In a recent study, psychologists Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley set up several experiments that allowed people to be kind to others through small acts. For example, in one experiment, the researchers had people write affirming notes to people they knew. In each experiment, the findings were clear: the person doing the act of kindness underestimated its positive effect on the receiver every time.

One primary reason for this miscalculation is chronic low self-esteem. Studies show almost 85% of the world’s population has low self-esteem, which is the judgment of our worth. Forty years of research finds leaders with low self-esteem are more likely to create toxic work environments because of a lack of awareness of and belief in their impact.

Self-esteem is built through experiences of mattering to others.

We can’t expect leaders to care if they don’t feel cared for.

When leaders themselves are or have been treated like they’re dispensable or just a resource to help someone else produce more, they act as if they’re a disposable resource and then treat others the same way. This well-studied phenomenon is called the Pygmalion effect: We become how we’re treated.

One reason leaders may feel like a mere resource is the evolution of work as a “transaction” in our lives. We see the perpetuation of the transactional idea of work in the false separation of “work” and “life.” But “life” happens wherever and whenever a person is alive. Work is part of life, and life occurs at work.

When we perpetuate a false separation between “work” and “life,” it becomes easier not to care about workers (“It’s not personal, it’s just ‘business’”), and workers are conditioned to expect less (“It’s ‘just’ work”).

When leaders realize that people bring their inherent dignity and every human psychological and emotional need into work and have an immense impact on meeting those needs, we build the self-esteem needed to care.

A key question: How do we show leaders how they matter?

5. Courage

The barriers above can seem overwhelming. I was talking to my friend and brilliant systems designer Mack Fogelson recently about these barriers to caring. She told me, “Leaders also need the courage to care.”

Courage is the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”

For leaders who are becoming aware of the weight of their impact on others’ well-being, want to change but don’t know how, or who are in systems that make it hard to care, we need your courage.

We need your courage to ask for support in learning the skills of caring. We need your courage to redesign systems that enable the attention and energy to care, to seek out and understand your impact, and to fully acknowledge people’s inherent humanity at work.

Abraham Lincoln wrote, “It often requires more courage to dare to do right than to fear to do wrong.”

To fully meet the needs of human beings in organizations, we also need leaders themselves to dare to do what’s right.

Zach Mercurio, Ph.D., is a purposeful leadership, mattering, meaningful work, and positive organizations researcher, speaker, and author of “The Invisible Leader: Transform Your Life, Work, and Organization with the Power of Authentic Purpose.”

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Zach Mercurio, PhD

I research and write about purpose, meaningfulness, and mattering. Let’s connect: www.zachmercurio.com