Recently, I’ve participated in some fascinating conversations centered around the ways in which the COVID pandemic has impacted the workplace. These discussions were sparked by a debate over the \ factors contributing to the so-called “Great Resignation” in which Americans have left their employers in record numbers, with 47.4 million jobs left voluntarily in 2021 alone.
CEOs and executives are understandably eager to identify the changes they can implement to attract new talent and retain their key employees, so it’s fascinating to note the gaps that continue to separate executives from employees, gaps that will impact any workforce retention efforts. A study from Future Forum suggests that executives experience significantly higher overall job satisfaction than the workers they are leading and that they consistently report a greater sense of belonging and work-life balance.
This gap reflects a disconnect within organizations, one that requires quick action. Leaders must demonstrate to their employees that their needs are recognized, and their contributions respected. This doesn’t happen accidentally. It’s intentional leadership, focused on cultivating meaningful relationships with the individuals who are key to your company’s success. These efforts have a root in something too many executives overlook as a critical leadership skill: empathy.
In my book Civility Rules!, I note the importance of empathy in creating stability in the workplace, enabling employees at all levels to focus on the task at hand. This empathy begins with listening. Many CEOs assume that they know what their employees need, or rely on reports from middle managers and heads of human resources, without ever engaging in one-on-one conversations. How can you know what your workers need from you or from their workplace if you don’t ask?
Empathy is more than passive listening; it demands that you acknowledge feelings and ideas that might be different than yours. An empathetic workplace recognizes the growing interest in flexible work hours. Empathic leadership facilitates happier, more positive connections and relationships that are more meaningful. At a time when people feel increasingly disconnected, empathy can be the factor that facilitates a sense of belonging and commitment, even for those workers contributing remotely.
Empathy in the workplace creates an environment of understanding, insightful responses, and nurturing connections. These connections lead to more productivity, even creativity. Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, describes empathy as the source of all innovation: “What is the most innate in all of us is that ability to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see the world the way they see it.”
Empathy can build more productive relationships not only within the workplace, but also in the external connections you build with customers, and with vendors and suppliers. Companies eager to establish themselves as positive actors in their community must center that thoughtful engagement in empathy.
Jane Fraser, President of Citigroup, describes empathy as a way companies can leverage a competitive advantage: “Intelligence and experience can help us solve problems. Optimism can help us generate momentum. But empathy is what channels our creative energies in the right direction. It’s the homing device that ensures we are focused on where our clients have come from and where they are now as we advise them on a path forward.”
Executives have an opportunity to examine carefully the lived experiences of their employees and their customers and to assess how their company’s mission is reflected in these experiences. Equally important, executives must ensure that their work culture enables innovative thinking and flexible problem-solving.
Leaders may develop their empathic skill sets, but they most likely never will be mind-readers, so strong communication skills will help bridge the gap. For example, we can ask clarifying questions, we can presume that we should not assume, and we can feel free to inquire about feelings. Yes, feelings. Acknowledging someone’s feelings on an issue goes a long way to making that empathetic connection. It does not mean we have to agree.
So many times, we default to the concept that empathy is aligned with kindness, and kindness is paired with weakness in leadership. In today’s workplace, with today’s workforce, kindness and empathy are elements job seekers look for in their potential employer.
My parents, retired business owners who built a company that at one time had nearly 1,000 employees, believed in a “friendly but not familiar” policy. Today, we might translate that to “empathic, but not personal.” With the myriad of HR laws that sometimes seem to conspire against leaders in their attempt to manage employees, we still tread carefully in this arena.
Keeping interpersonal dynamics professional is a must. Empathy does not require us to cross the line into the personal realm. We can show emotion, concern, and understanding without venturing into deeper waters that can create future management hazards.
The first step toward a more productive and committed workforce begins with empathy.