Leadership styles in business vary from one to the next, but one character trait that is steadily becoming essential in the modern workplace, especially since COVID-19, is empathy. It’s the importance of taking into consideration how your actions or inaction affect those around you, and in business, this is fundamental to building a strong corporate culture and ultimately, retaining employees. Unfortunately, workplace empathy has often been overlooked as a performance indicator as it's seen as a soft skill, rather than task-producing a tangible and measurable outcome. However, the shift towards being more "employee/people-centric" where management and leaders are starting to incorporate ways to focus on the employee as a whole, rather than just on their working output is very much happening.
What is Empathetic Leadership?
Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings, actions, and thoughts of other people. It is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand how they’re feeling in a certain situation. Authentically empathetic leaders have the ability to connect with their employees (no matter their seniority) and form close, mutually respectful relationships, that enhance relationships and performance. They are there to support their employees in achieving their full potential, strengthen bonds between team members, and increase the performance of groups and individuals.
It’s important to remember the difference between sympathy and empathy:
- Sympathy is defined by feelings of pity for another person, without really understanding what it’s like to be in their situation.
- Empathy, on the other hand, refers to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions and opinions of that person. Empathy in the workplace is often more productive and supportive.
Empathy in Business: research and statistics
According to Businessolver's State of Workplace Empathy study, 93% of employees reported they would stay with an empathetic employer, 82% of employees would leave their position to work for a more empathetic organisation. More research by The Washington Post reported that empathy shows people they are heard and appreciated; boosting engagement, morale, retention and productivity. According to the report: 77% of workers would be willing to work more hours for a more empathetic workplace; meanwhile, 60% would accept a slashed salary for the same. 92% of HR professionals believe that a compassionate workplace is a major factor for employee retention, 80% of millennials said they would leave their current job if their office became less empathetic and 66% of Baby Boomers also shared this sentiment.
These statistics speak volumes about the importance of acting and leading with empathy in the workplace. It can make or break how an employee will work, behave, and stay / leave the company.
So, how to be a more empathetic manager?
When employees feel they are valued and listened to, and genuine empathy is given, no matter their situation, this gives employees a greater sense of instilled faith in the organisation, and one where they're likely to stay for longer. When employees feel understood, cared for and appreciated by their superiors, they’re willing to work harder, take risks for great rewards, and are encouraged to help their colleagues succeed. Displaying empathetic leadership in your business can take many shapes and forms and can be an evolving process. Below are some ways how to be more empathetic:
Look out for signs of employee burnout in others
Stress, anxiety and uncertainty, especially during COVID-19 times and as we're slowly still coming out of it yet with one foot very much inside, can very much bring about (anticipated) burnout for your teams. There's so much more to juggle and working life is not entirely back to what was. Managers who are skilled at empathetic leadership are more able to recognise signs of overworking in their employees before burnout becomes an issue, which can result in increased absenteeism, disengagement, or turnover.
Demonstrate a willingness to help an employee with personal problems
Employees spend a huge chunk of their time at work, with their colleagues and managers - be it in the office or from home. And it goes without saying that the boundaries between work and home life are often blurred. Empathetic leaders understand that their employees (like themselves) have both a duty at home and with family and all the pressures which come with that, as well as having to maintain their professional responsibilities. This can often be overwhelming and all-encompassing, and personal complexities may overspill into one's professional façade.
Managers should have an open-door policy and open communication channels encouraging employees to speak up when they need to, without judgement or any repercussions. Transparency will foster psychological safety and help team members feel comfortable sharing when it’s necessary. This willingness to help may very much help employees to stay within their roles, as it takes time and trust to build.
Show sincere interest in the needs, hopes, and dreams of other people.
When a manager sees their team members as holistic people who exist outside the workplace, this ensures employees feel whole and they don't have to turn on and off their different sides dependent on where they are. Team members who see that their manager acknowledge them as a whole unit rather than just an employee, are more engaged and willing to go the extra mile.
Show compassion when other people disclose a personal loss
If Managers are able to express genuine empathy and compassion when one of their employees discloses a personal loss, be it a close relative or a friend, this will help employees feel comfortable to bring their emotions to work and not just suppress them, or take additional time off to deal with them. More so, this creates real relationships and connections between managers and employees, showing that there is genuine care as if they had also experienced a loss. Often this feeling compassion which managers express speaks more than words of condolences.
Therefore, it's so important for managers to consistently put themselves in the other person’s place with an empathetic lens rather than solely focusing on results. This may include taking into account what's happening for employees, their past experiences which have shaped them, their personal circumstances at home etc. By understanding the social identity of your employee, this can help you as a manger manage conflict, dive innovation and problem solve with your employees. This is all priceless when it comes to employee retention, as if this is majorly lacking for an employee, there's a high chance they will start to look around and jump ship as and when necessary.
Empathy has become almost indispensable in the corporate world. The first step in becoming an empathetic leader / manager is to fully embrace open communication and a drive to connect with others on a deep level, rather than superficially and pitifully, and thereafter, instilling this same empathetic outlook as part of the organisation's value proposition. It's crucial to remember that introducing empathy into all that you do doesn't necessarily happen naturally or overnight, but through consistency and patience. Once this is ingrained in your organisational culture and ethos, it will come as second nature and will make the world of difference to your employees.
How have you embraced empathy? What does your organisation do to be more empathetic with your employees?
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