Learning & Development

The Role of Empathy in Leadership: Employees Demand It, Leaders Must Live It

Most people don’t know how to truly understand someone else’s point of view without letting their own thoughts and emotions get in the way. Some leaders are guilty of this, often sitting in their own place of judgment rather than using empathy as the bridge to understanding and connection.

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Empathy is about taking time to listen, putting yourself in someone else’s place, and sharing feelings, not about sugarcoating, jumping into problem-solving, or having to agree. It’s about meeting people where they are now, listening, and providing what they need in that moment.

It is also not about making your opinions and feelings center stage. Showing empathy is about them, not you.

As many workplaces struggle to retain and hire employees during the “Great Resignation,” leaders don’t have time to feel sorry for themselves. But it may be time for more of them to feel empathy toward their workers.

Ernst & Young’s 2021 Empathy in Business Survey showed around 50% of employees quit a previous job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work or in their personal lives. On the other hand, nearly 90% of workers who were queried believe empathetic leadership creates loyalty, and 85% say it increases productivity.

Empathetic leadership is an absolute must in today’s COVID-affected workplace, as employees struggle with burnout, working from home, and other issues, according to research by Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to advance women in leadership positions. But until more business owners, executives, and managers make listening to their employees and showing them they care a priority, workers will look for companies that are more attuned to their concerns.

The Keys to a Healthy Work Culture: Understanding and Acceptance

While empathy has gained importance in work culture in recent years, many managers aren’t prepared for that. Leading with empathy means understanding and accepting that people are not always operating at their very best. Issues from home affect work lives—a reality magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic as many people worked remotely. Working within and around that reality is the best way to create a culture that makes people want to come to work.

As a leader, every issue you face with your company or employees is an opportunity to understand, learn, and grow—a value of empathy every leader needs to understand.

If we want to connect with people on deeper levels, we need to shift our focus from  what people do to why they do it. Communication guru Simon Sinek always says to focus on the human connection. When I speak at live events, I start with feelings and embrace emotion as a way to connect with my audience. The same basic concept applies to leaders interacting with their people: Embrace the emotion of the moment.

Author Marcus Buckingham asserts there are two questions leaders should ask their people: “What are you working on?” and “How can I help you?” These two questions are simple but powerful—they let your employees share their top priorities, show you trust them to do their jobs, and let you fulfill your role as a leader in supporting them. Ask the questions, be quiet, and let your people talk.

Invisible Vulnerabilities and Sharing

We all have invisible vulnerabilities, and we all have had life experiences, good and bad, that cannot be seen through the eyes of others. You don’t always know what others have experienced, and they don’t always know what you have been through.

Sharing is not making it about yourself; it is about opening up on a more personal level and having the courage to be vulnerable. Leaders often don’t think about being vulnerable with their employees, but when they do, they create a more meaningful, personal relationship, making both leader and employee more human.

Our shared humanity makes for happier, more productive workplaces. We all have our own personal journeys that shaped our lives and continue to shape them. So respect those journeys, both yours and theirs. You cannot see, touch, or feel what another person is going through unless you are willing to hold space for that person. Therefore, be a willing listener, and be aware that sometimes you have to be the first to share, giving way to mutual sharing.

Here are some tips for you to lead with empathy, which will grow your relationships, your culture, and your company:

  • Be authentic. Like actors in a Shakespearean play, we sometimes play roles instead of showing up authentically. We have been taught to hide our true selves and display a false sense of bravado. But being empathetic is learning how to be your authentic self. If you show up with defenses and blind spots, you’re not going to be open or aware, have empathy for others, or create meaningful relationships with your employees.

To lead with empathy, go beyond your façade, and lead with a willingness to dig deep, listen, and model mutual support. Remember: The posture we take in approaching others, including both employees and employers, can either shut people down or engage them.

  • Communicate with a personal touch. A leader who consistently communicates with a personal touch for a variety of reasons—praise, concern, and support for employees—builds morale and increases retention. Communication and connection can be accomplished in a variety of ways, such as verbal; nonverbal; spoken in person or over the phone; or written in texts, e-mails, and handwritten notes. I affectionately call them “touches.” The more personal they are, the more appreciated they are by employees.
  • Make space for connection. Leaders need to respect how their employees need personal connections with each other, and leaders should personally connect with employees once or twice a week outside of regular meetings. Make time for more social and genuine connections in virtual meetings, and have fun with virtual coffee chats, happy hours, trivia contests, or scavenger hunts.

Remember: As a whole, employees are missing connection in these new normal times. Extroverts want to be with others; they thrive on direct social stimulation. Introverts are struggling because they like to occasionally hang out with extroverts around the watercooler, the break room, or in meetings to enjoy their energy and join in the conversation. At the same time, leaders need to respect how exhausting virtual and video meetings can be. Keep meetings under an hour to increase attention and prevent mental fatigue.

  • Provide remote workers with the tech support they need. There’s a growing economic inequality crisis, with some remote workers not having money for or access to technology. No one wants to lose out on high-quality talent because they lack funds for high-speed Internet or a computer. Create a program to provide office equipment for your employees so they can have a functional setup in their personal space.
  • Respect the boundaries of work and home life. Working in a remote environment has thrown off a lot of employees. It was easy to have barriers and work/life balance when we commuted. But leaders can help employees create a home space where they can turn work on and off, which boosts productivity, enhances connection, and creates a healthier work/life balance.

Do you know your people well enough to lead them in the most effective way? Do you build empathetic relationships with them? Leading with empathy is about listening and taking in other people’s points of view, having the courage to lead with vulnerability, and making collaborative decisions you believe are best for the organization. And, it means leading with transparency, fairness, and respect.

Kathleen Quinn Votaw is the CEO of TalenTrust, a strategic recruiting and human capital consulting firm, and author of Dare to Care in the Workplace: A Guide to the New Way We Work. Regarded as a key disruptor in her industry, Quinn Votaw has helped thousands of companies across multiple industries develop purpose-based, inclusive communities that inspire employees to come to work. Her company has been recognized in the Inc. 5000, and she also speaks nationally on recruitment, culture, and leading with empathy in the workplace.