• Jul 29 2022

Is Empathy the “Secret Sauce” to Employee Engagement?

By Holly Wright, ExecOnline Executive Coach, Learning Facilitator, & Subject Matter Expert

Now, more than ever, leaders are recognizing the importance of empathy in the workplace.

A 2021 Ernst & Young survey of over 1,000 employed Americans has confirmed this by finding that 90% of US workers believe Empathic Leadership leads to higher job satisfaction and 79% agree it decreases employee turnover.

With the effects of the pandemic, political and social climates, and the volatile state of our economy, we are all facing pressures from multiple directions that are impossible to leave at the (literal or virtual) door when we show up for work. We’re all burning out. Add to this the effects of the Great Resignation which leaves more work for those who stuck around and, in turn, leads to more burnout. In the EY survey, the majority (88%) of respondents felt that Empathic Leadership creates loyalty among employees toward their leaders – revealing that empathy could be the secret sauce to retaining and attracting employees. 

What is Empathic Leadership and Why is it Important?

Let’s begin by looking at the opposite end of the spectrum from Empathic Leadership, Task-Oriented Leadership. While we all can agree that completing tasks drives us toward our business objectives and is an important component of leadership, a Task-Oriented Leader’s top priority is to get things done. They focus on facts and data, usually deal with the reasoning and logic behind actions and decisions, and may get impatient with others if things don’t move as quickly as desired. They value efficiency and being productive in everything they do.

Whereas in the past the focus was on tasks and results, we’re now noticing a shift in values in the workforce that is making leaders see the benefits of being more people-focused and an Empathic Leader.

Some may have the misconception that practicing empathy means passively accepting poor performance or letting someone else have their way. Or, empathy can be confused with trying to “happy up” a situation and coming to the rescue with a solution. In Dare to Lead, author Brené Brown says, “It’s our instinct as human beings to try to make things better. We want to fix, we want to give advice. But empathy isn’t about fixing, it’s the brave choice to be with someone in their darkness—not to race to turn on the light so we feel better.”

There’s a great movie I’ve watched with my 6-year-old daughter called Inside Out. The film features a 2-minute scene that beautifully illustrates empathy and sitting with someone “in their darkness”. One character, Joy, tries and fails to cheer up her friend after he’s experienced a loss. Enter another character, Sadness, who listens to the friend and reflects back her understanding of his situation, thus giving him validation, space to process his emotions and move on. If you have the 2 minutes to spare, I highly recommend watching it.

Empathic Leadership means having the ability to understand the needs and perspectives of others and being aware of their thoughts and feelings. It’s not only the ability, but the application of flexible perspective-taking to understand how others see an issue or what might be difficult for them in the situation. Often, in my coaching sessions with leaders, they confuse this definition of empathy as meaning that they agree with what the other person is saying, feeling, or doing which makes them shy away from holding an empathy-led conversation.

It’s important to note that understanding someone’s perspective and agreeing with it are two different things. Empathy means that whether we agree with another’s perspective or not, we validate that perspective.

Empathic Leadership is important:numerous studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between empathy and job performance. It makes us feel seen and heard which makes us feel important and, in turn, loyal to those that see and hear us.

Why Some Struggle With Empathy

There are a number of reasons why it may be hard for some to demonstrate empathy. One reason may be due to deeply held cultural beliefs or values around authority, control, or professionalism. From my experience coaching global leaders, I feel that our natural strengths, thinking, or behavioral styles play a big role in empathy. 

According to TRACOM’s Social Style assessment, I have an Analytical leadership style, meaning I am left-brain oriented in my thinking and behavior, and I normally default to tasks, goals, data, and processes. I want to know “what?” “why?” and “how?” and the “who?” comes last. While I have the ability to shift my thinking to be more people-focused, it takes intentional effort on my part to get there.

According to Gallup, only 18% of people who’ve completed their CliftonStrengths assessment have Empathy in their top five strengths (for me, it lands at #28 out of their 34 strengths). This means most of us don’t respond with empathy immediately, spontaneously, and consistently.

Learning why empathy is so important for retention and employee engagement–and knowing it’s not a common strength–can leave some leaders feeling frustrated, unauthentic, or uncertain of how to lead their team or build relationships.

So what’s a leader to do?

How Leaders Can Practice Empathy

There are different components of Empathic Leadership that can be demonstrated through the head (thinking), heart (feeling), and hand (doing). And though empathy (heart) may not be a strength for you, there may be a ‘thinking’ or ‘doing’ component that comes more naturally. That can translate to things like flexible perspective taking (head), being able to quickly figure out what others are feeling and why, and vocally encouraging others to share their opinions (hand). My #1 strength in CliftonStrengths is Relator, so I can use that to overcome my empathy deficit to create deep relationships.

A key skill leaders can develop to become more empathetic in their leadership style is considering and affirming the perspective of others. Conflicting opinions are bound to arise when collaborating with others, and failure to understand and acknowledge the “why” behind others’ perspectives can frustrate the people we work with, stall progress, and thwart communication. When people feel that their perspective is understood and taken into consideration, collaboration becomes easier. 

Other skills or strengths you can leverage to practice empathy are:

  • Active listening. Listen, don’t solve. Paraphrase and summarize what you heard the other person say. Provide empathy to your colleague by reflecting back what you see, what you hear, and what you sense they are feeling.
  • Have a curious mindset and avoid judgment when describing what you see and hear. Then ask an open-ended What or Why questions to gain further understanding. (e.g., “what is being said that I’m not hearing”?, or “why are you telling me this”?)
  • Take action by watching for signs of burnout and following up with your colleagues in one-on-ones, taking interest in the needs, hopes, and goals of others.

By taking these steps you can demonstrate Empathetic Leadership and still motivate others toward goals and business outcomes by essentially saying, I care about you, I hear you, and we need to do ‘X,’ so what can we do to move us forward?

How HR and L&D Leaders Can Help

The important thing to know is that, though it may not be a strength for many of us, there are empathetic skills that can be learned. HR and L&D leaders can help employees by creating an empathic culture that highlights people-oriented skills as much as task-oriented skills. Offer opportunities for employees to learn listening and coaching skills or attend communication workshops. Using assessments, like some that I mentioned above, can help leaders raise their self-awareness, increase their Emotional Intelligence, and learn how and when they may need to shift their leadership approach given the context of a situation.

When leaders demonstrate empathetic leadership skills, they improve their effectiveness and that of their team. They will become greater assets to the organization because they are better able to build and maintain relationships, creating community and loyalty on the team. Turnover, effectively, declines as engagement and motivation go up because people feel cared about and seen. 

Holly Wright, PCC is an ExecOnline Leadership coach specializing in executive integration, helping leaders successfully transition to a new role within their existing organization or in a new organization, rapidly accelerating the value they bring to the new role. Through her coaching experience, Holly has focused on values-based coaching, helping her clients live and work more authentically and enhance their leadership presence using a strengths-based and positive psychology coaching approach. Holly began her career in the hospitality industry managing, developing, and training large, multi-functional teams. Currently, as an eLearning consultant, Holly collaborates with leadership teams to help them improve their systems and processes.

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