The Importance of Empathy Among Today's Leaders

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Given how stressful the world is these days, empathy’s not a bad quality for anyone to have. But it’s increasingly becoming a critical one for managers and business leaders.

recent study by Catalyst, the global non-profit that advocates women in leadership positions, found that organizations that have an empathetic leader tend to excel at innovation, engagement and inclusion – and suffer less burnout.

The study, of both male and female workers, found that some 76% of employers felt more engaged with their jobs when senior managers displayed empathy. That compares to just 32% of people who worked for someone who didn’t.

And the impact on innovation is even more noticeable. Some 61% of those with an empathetic boss reported being often or always innovative at work, compared to just 13% with less empathic leaders.

Mental health has been a growing concern throughout the pandemic and is often cited as a factor in The Great Resignation. That has changed the role of managers and leaders, who now not only are responsible for getting results from their team, but also are often thrust into the role of caregiver, checking in on the stress levels of workers.

Even those with empathy are only able to do so much. Over half of the women surveyed (some 54%) who had an empathetic boss said they still suffered from high levels of pandemic-related burnout. That’s better than those who didn’t, though. That group saw high-level burnout rates of 63%.

“Senior leaders can establish an environment of empathy within the organization, but managers—who are involved in the day-to-day relationships with employees—also play an important role,” says the report. “As women bear the brunt of job loss, schooling, and caretaking during the pandemic, a fundamental lack of support for women both at work and home has also become glaringly apparent. But our findings show that managers can fill in part of this gap.”

A key part of empathy, of course, is showing care and concern about an employee’s life circumstances, which can be anything from child care issues to doctors appointments to lifestyle choices. And there’s a pronounced gap in the percentage of people who feel their circumstances are being respected when it comes to empathetic leaders vs. non. Among women of color, the percent difference was roughly 40%. Among white women, the gap widened to 51% when asked about senior leaders and 58% when queried about managers.

“Our data show that practicing empathy to increase women’s sense that their individual life circumstances are valued and respected has downstream consequences for attrition, significantly increasing women’s intentions to stay at their job,” says Catalyst. “The data did not show the same relationship for men of color or White men.”

Empathy isn’t something that’s limited to in-person, either. Technology, if used right, can create inclusion for women in the workplace and help create empathy. The snag is, a lot of the problems that plagued both women and men in the physical workplace have spilled over into virtual ones.

That makes it important for leaders to not only put imagine themselves to be in an employee’s situation or actively listen. They have to demonstrate that empathy as well. That can be done in a number of ways, including:

  • Intentionally discuss employees’ feelings and then reflect what they’ve just shared to make sure you understand correctly.
  • Prioritize getting to know all employees as whole people, not as just “workers.”
  • If an employee shares an emotional experience, give them the space to fully explain without interjecting or diverting the conversation.
  • Tell your employees/teams you care. Don’t assume they know.
  • If someone pauses while speaking to you, count to five slowly in your head, giving them time to find the right words.
  • Pay attention to employee facial expressions and body language – and be aware of your own.

Open and honest conversations won’t cure all workplace problems or do away with burnout, but they will significantly reduce the issues – and that could help a company’s turnover problems as well.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Chris Morris

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience, more than half of which were spent with some of the Internet’s biggest sites, including CNNMoney.com, where he was Director of Content Development, and Yahoo! Finance, where he was managing editor. Today, he writes for dozens of national outlets including Digital Trends, Fortune, and CNBC.com.

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