Why Every Leader Should Focus on Empathy (and How to Do It)

Anthony Santa Maria

Anthony Santa Maria

Reading about current workplace trends — like Quiet Quitting and the Great Resignation — it’s clear that people are unhappy at work. These phenomena are a wakeup call for business leaders to do something different. 

Luckily, there’s a treasure trove of inspiration from companies who are getting it right. Among companies who are boasting high levels of retention and engagement, one theme is clear: empathetic leadership. 

Why empathetic leadership, why now?

For one thing, several recent studies and reports have shown that employees care about it. They care about it a lot. 

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) surveyed nearly 2,500 U.S. workers and found that a whopping 97% believe empathy is an essential quality of a healthy culture. More specifically, 92% say that when looking for a job they value organizations that demonstrate empathy.

In our current volatile talent market, empathetic leadership is more important than ever. You’ve likely read about workers leaving their jobs and even entire industries in droves (this has been referred to as the Great Resignation or the Great Attrition), as well as the phenomena of quiet quitting. To illustrate this recent trend of employee dissatisfaction, studies show that the voluntary quit rate is hovering at 25 percent higher than at pre-pandemic levels.

Based on SHRM’s report, it’s easy to see why people are seeking greener pastures. Over half of respondents believe their organization’s leadership would lie to employees if it would benefit the business. Over a third claim to have witnessed inconsiderate or insensitive treatment of a co-worker by a manager in the past year. And, according to Gallup, only 28% of employees strongly agree that their organization is fair to everyone

Empathetic Leadership is the Key to Retention

Companies are competing for talent in ways they never had to before.

According to a recent McKinsey report, there’s a disconnect between why employers thought people were quitting and the reasons people actually gave. Employers named things like compensation and work-life balance, while employees cited factors like not being valued and uncaring or uninspiring leadership. 

These types of cultural and human factors are especially important to younger generations. Millennials and Gen-Z in particular value inclusivity and diversity more highly than other generational groups. 

These trends go beyond retention. A growing body of evidence indicates that empathetic leadership is crucial to a company maintaining high levels of engagement, retention, innovation, and productivity. Empathetic organizations promote positive workplace relationships, encourage collaboration, and foster diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ)

For organizations to reap the benefits of an empathetic workforce, it needs to start at the top. Read on below for tips business leaders can take to prioritize and build empathy. 

How Can Leaders Build Workplace Empathy?

Fortunately, empathy is not necessarily something you’re born with — it can be developed and learned. Making a conscious effort to build empathetic leadership among executive teams and people leaders is a great start. Here are three ways L&D and DEI teams can build empathy as a core leadership skill:

1. Harness the power of perspective-taking:

Leaders should make a conscious effort to understand and imagine what it is like to experience the world as someone other than themselves. The benefits are even greater when leaders encourage all employees to do the same. When building empathetic leadership at scale, immersive learning technology can give you the upperhand. 

By understanding where someone from a different background is coming from, one can learn to respond to them in an empathetic way. This is especially important when an employee is bringing up something difficult or making a complaint. It is equally important when leaders are managing complex change management projects, or supporting their employees during global crises. 

2. Expand professional networks:

It’s hard to open yourself to ideas or perspectives when you’re always talking to the same people. Leaders, like most people, usually seek advice from their peers. And our networks tend to look a lot like we do. While you might get some great insights about business, it won’t help much when it comes to empathy.

Instead, leaders should make an effort to seriously and regularly engage with employees who are from different backgrounds. This can be done in a formalized mentoring (or reverse mentoring) structure, or in more informal settings like ERGs and lunches. When employees see leaders making an effort on this front, they are more likely to see them as trustworthy.

3. Create space for self-reflection:

Most managers do not realize they have a trust or empathy issue until it is too late. This is why they should practice checking in with themselves about how they are showing up in the world and leading at their company. 

Leaders should regularly review their company’s core values and reflect on how they embody them in their day-to-day. How might a junior employee answer that same question? Are others in leadership roles being held accountable? Is there an open dialogue of communication across company hierarchies? Is there a culture of cooperation and teamwork being fostered? Am I behaving empathetically? Am I someone people can trust?

All of these and more are questions that go beyond basic financial metrics that leaders should keep top of mind. When tied to specific measures, leaders can assess how they are progressing towards a more empathetic workplace. 

Empathetic Leadership Drives DEIJ

Leaders are viewed as role models by the entire organization. How they practice (or don’t practice) empathy sets a standard that can inspire behavior change and dedication to empathy from others. This can have a powerful ripple effect that can transform an organization, leading to significant gains in retention, cooperation, as well as in DEIJ initiatives that build trust and understanding across all employees. 

As Chantal Gaemperle, LVMH group executive VP of human resources & synergies said, “Understanding of the power of empathy is rooted in an important core value: people make the difference. As we create a truly inclusive workplace, empathy plays an important role in ensuring talent can come to work in an emotionally safe environment where they feel comfortable being their true selves.”

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