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Research suggests empathetic leadership is now a strategic imperative

Posted by Neha De

October 13, 2021    |     4-minute read (775 words)

Empathy has always been a crucial leadership skill, but it has taken on a whole different level of priority and meaning in the COVID-19 era. The coronavirus pandemic has led to ongoing uncertainty within employees, which has caused severe burnout. According to research by Catalyst, “Employees — especially employees of color — have been straining to meet the harsh demands of life during a pandemic, when the fundamental calculus of work, childcare, healthcare, travel and social interaction has been upended.” In addition, turnover has surged, and businesses are struggling with what has been termed the Great Resignation. 

The research explains, “Empathy is an important driver of employee outcomes such as innovation, engagement and inclusion — especially in times of crisis... Employees now are looking for managers, leaders, and companies who will not just acknowledge these hardships but put them front and center in a strategy to lead ethically, responsibly, and equitably.” Empathetic leadership requires business leaders to be able to understand the needs of their employees and be aware of their thoughts and feelings. 

Benefits of empathy in leaders in the modern workplace

Challenging situations highlight why empathy is an important leadership trait, and crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic drive the message home. Employees who are led by people with high emotional intelligence tend to work harder and persevere through tough situations. Empathetic leadership creates deeper connections between people. It raises levels of trust, improves collaboration and strengthens loyalty. In addition, leaders who are compassionate are usually perceived as stronger and more competent. 

Check out four constructive outcomes of empathetic leadership, according to the research by Catalyst: 

  1. Innovation - 61% of employees with highly empathic senior leaders report being innovative at work compared to only 13% of people with less empathic senior leaders. 
  2. Work engagement - 76% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report being engaged, compared to only 32% of people with less empathic ones.
  3. Retention - 57% of white women who feel their life circumstances are respected and valued by their company report never or rarely thinking of leaving their current organization, compared to 14% of white women who do not feel valued and respected. In addition, 62% of women of color who think their life circumstances are respected and valued by their company report never or rarely thinking of leaving their current company, compared to 30% of women of color who do not feel valued and respected.
  4. Inclusivity - 50% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report experiencing inclusion at work, compared to only 17% of people with less empathic senior leadership.
How can you practice empathy as a leader

Empathy contributes to positive outcomes. Here are four ways you can show greater empathy in your workplace:

  1. Watch for signs of burnout in employees - Work burnout is a real issue today. In fact, according to the Catalyst survey, 60% of the respondents said that they were experiencing burnout, which has caused employee productivity, engagement and organizational commitment to plummet.
  2. Skilled empathetic leaders are adept at recognizing the signs of overwork in their team members before burnout becomes an issue that causes disengagement or turnover. To show empathy, take a few extra minutes every week to check in with your employees to determine how they are handling their current workload.
  1. Show sincere interest in their hopes, dreams and needs - An essential part of empathetic leadership is working to understand the individual goals and needs of every employee in the organization, as well as to know how to best match work assignments that contribute to both employee satisfaction and performance. Staff members who have superiors that recognize them in this unique way are more motivated, engaged and will go the extra mile.
  2. Show a willingness to help an employee with personal challenges - Thanks to remote-first work, the lines between work and personal life have become blurred. Empathetic leaders realize that their employees are often juggling personal issues while having to maintain their professional responsibilities. They acknowledge that it is up to them to lead and support those staff members when they need it most.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open at all times and encourage transparency to ensure psychological safety and help your employees feel comfortable sharing when they need to.
  1. Show compassion if an employee goes through personal trauma - Everyone goes through personal losses, and many people are dealing with tremendous fear due to COVID-19. Empathy is a wonderful tool that you can use to establish connections with those you lead. So even if you cannot relate to the specific loss your employee is experiencing, acting empathetically and letting them know they are supported can go a long way.

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