The Value of Empathetic Leadership in Cannabis

three women sitting on chairs front of table


Make no mistake about it; the cannabis industry is tough. For those who work in the space, notions like long hours, volatile workspaces, and high turnover rates are all-too-familiar. Even more, cannabis professionals often deal with stressors unknown in other vocations — including regulatory instability. 

The challenging work environment of the cannabis industry speaks to the need for empathetic leadership across the board. Therefore, in a marketplace colored by instability, executive and managerial leadership must work in unison to provide workplaces conducive to employee wellness. 

How does Empathy Provide Value for Business Leaders? 

In an article titled “Empathy is an Essential Leadership Skill,” Forbes defines empathy as, “the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective, and feelings. Also called ‘vicarious introspection,’ it’s commonly described as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.”

Yet, the practice of identifying with others is more than an emotive response of sympathy; it is a strategic tool for leadership. 

The Forbes article continues to expand on their analysis of empathy in defining it as, “a neutral data gathering tool that enables you to understand the human environment within which you are operating.”

In essence, empathy is a practical management tool that is used strategically to collect information on employees. Once data is amassed, leaders can then make logical adjustments that influence employee morale and, subsequently, overall business performance. 

Since cannabis businesses are often extremely stressful work environments, leaders can employ empathy as a tool to monitor employee wellbeing — with the hopes of curbing problems before they become pathological. 


Startup Environments in Cannabis

The fact that the cannabis space is entirely comprised of startup businesses further exemplifies the need for empathetic leadership in the industry. To this end, modern cannabis businesses are often likened to “ships that are being sailed while they are being built.”

Simply put, these businesses face the task of generating revenue before they have proper internal structures in place. Consequently, startup cannabis companies often lack protocols for monitoring employee wellness. 

Due to the cannabis industry’s novelty, many businesses cannot afford to implement human resource departments right-off-the-bat. Yet, working in a cannabis startup can be extremely stressful. Many of these companies are incredibly disorganized in just about every capacity, beyond a lack of HR protocol. Unfortunately, the combination of a high-stress work environment with a lack of employee care programs leads to excessive burnout in the industry. 

In utilizing empathy as an objective tool for monitoring their workforce, cannabis leaders can get ahead of “startup burnout” as it becomes an issue. By “putting themselves in their employee’s shoes,” they can constructively observe organizational matters within the business. After that, using critical indicators from their observations, leaders can then develop organizational platforms such as employee training manuals and standard operating procedures (SOPs). 

A Semi-legal Business

If you live in a more established arena of the cannabis space, such as Colorado or California, it is often easy to forget that cannabis is still federally illegal. Nonetheless, the fact is that the U.S. government considers anyone who grows, processes, or sells cannabis a criminal. For many cannabis professionals, the negative stigmas surrounding marijuana in the mainstream can lead to additional stress at home. 

Unfortunately, the taboos ingrained in the American culture through the drug war are challenging to break. That said, many cannabis professionals must defend their career choices against both family members and close friends. In this unfortunate turn of events, many never really get to “clock out” from work. The process of de-stigmatizing cannabis is deeply personal for most, and goes far beyond the realm of professional obligation. 

For cannabis business leaders, empathizing with employees on the challenges of fighting cannabis taboos is an excellent team-building opportunity. By identifying with their employees’ passions and values, cannabis leaders can more effectively catalyze their workforce’s dedication. Taking this a step further, it could be a good idea for leadership to get their team involved with charities like the Last Prisoner Project so that everyone can work together towards a greater good. 


Industry Change and Compliance Protocol 

Those of us who work in cannabis understand that change is one of the only things we can consistently count on in the industry. With this notion in mind, managers and employees alike often struggle to keep up with regulatory changes when they occur. This notion is especially true for team members like budtenders, as they are not always privy to new compliance protocols in their given market. 

Compliance is one of the essential elements of the legal cannabis industry. However, in a marketplace that is always evolving, it can be quite challenging to keep track of and enforce new rules as they emerge. This fact is particularly relevant for craft producers, and dispensaries who do not have a dedicated compliance team. For such businesses, management and employees must continuously engage in compliance protocols to ensure systems are up-to-date. 

Cannabis businesses can potentially avoid compliance infractions if leaders utilize empathy in working more hands-on with team members. As such, by identifying with their employee’s viewpoints, managers may see the weaknesses of their compliance structures. In the end, empathy could be a critical tool for reassessing company compliance protocols and avoiding costly infractions.

Final Thoughts

The cannabis industry presents an inspiring yet challenging line of work. To this end, factors such as startup environments, semi-legal business, and consistent change are exceedingly hard for industry employees. Executive and managerial leaders are therefore well-advised to utilize empathy to objectively assess the overall health of employees. 

By strategically employing methods for assessing morale in the workplace, cannabis companies protect their most important employees. Interestingly, by systemizing the human experience at work, leaders can develop internal structures that can significantly improve overall business performance in the long run. In the end, the wisest business people realize that employee wellness is intrinsically tied to profitability.

Looking to the future, the most successful companies will be those who empathize with their team members in creating environments that maximize productivity. 


By Claudia Post, Founder and CEO of Most Consulting Group

ProKure’s Chief Science Officer Leads First Ever ASTM International Standards for Cleaning & Disinfecting Cannabis Cultivation Facilities

Emerald contributor since March 2012


Your email address will not be published.