Leaders need to lead with empathy—especially now

Leaders need to lead with empathy

Employees look a little different these days, don’t they? No, not their age, gender or clothing style; more in what you can see on their faces. The past year has certainly taken a toll on us all – career disruptions, economic hits, anxiety, isolation, even personal loss – and the worry lines are starting to show.

Whether your team has been on-site the whole time, working remotely or some mix of both, they’re desperately in need of a renewed sense of empathy from their leaders and work community, now more than ever. Even as we (hopefully) turn the corner on this pandemic, this is a crucial time for Kansas City leaders and HR professionals to focus on their most important asset. Krister Ungerboeck elaborates in Entrepreneur:

“Right now, plenty of workers are dealing with tremendous fear. Those guided by empathetic leaders will likely have an easier time working through their stresses, while others operating under a ‘business as usual’ manager may become disengaged and resentful. Make no mistake: Leaders will be judged by how they react during this historic moment.”

Empathy doesn’t necessarily mean some grand gesture; in fact, it’s often best expressed in small daily ways. And not only is empathy the right thing to do from a human perspective, it also brings some important benefits for your organization.

Empathy pays off for the company

Sunday night dread. More than 80% of us feel it when we think about the work week ahead (that number goes up to 90% for Millennials), so it’s clear companies have work to do to show those employees empathy to alleviate at least some of that fear. The most successful companies have already made that a priority during the pandemic because they see firsthand what it means, says Mark Lobosco, vice president of talent solutions at LinkedIn:

“Instead of putting shareholder value over all … a company’s purpose now includes investing in employees. Companies are becoming more empathetic not only to attract candidates but also to retain their workforce amid increasing expectations of what employers owe to their people.”

Consider some key benefits of focusing on empathy in the workplace:

Build respect and engagement with current employees – One of the most important aspects of leadership is the ability to connect with your team. Yet, making that connection is virtually impossible if the leader feels inaccessible or closed off, or just lacks warmth and compassion in general. By practicing empathy in your daily work life – by providing guidance and encouragement from an emotional level – you’ll demonstrate your ability to listen and to acknowledge each individual, which will help employees develop both personally and professionally.

Attract highly engaged new employees – Retention is just one side of the equation; you also need to create an environment that makes your company more desirable to job-seekers. That means building a culture of empathy and compassion that attracts others who value those traits—and those often go hand-in-hand with high levels of engagement. Maria Ross elaborates for Entrepreneur:

“Consider what today’s workers value. Good, high-performing individuals have lots of employment choices. Among other things, the gig economy and access to technology have created opportunities beyond traditional corporate work. So, it’s time to think beyond traditional corporate benefits.”

Empathy is good for business – A culture of empathy goes beyond just your employees. Your customers will start to feel the same approach and will reward you with their loyalty. After all, isn’t sales all about understanding your customers’ challenges and pain points and showing how you can help? Plus, history has shown that companies that exhibit the most empathy are typically also the highest performing ones. One study reported the top 10 companies with the most empathetic internal cultures “increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50 percent more earnings.” How’s that for ROI?

Start practicing empathy today

While showing empathy takes time and practice, the good news is you can start right away. Consider a few simple steps that your HR leaders can drive:

  • If you don’t already, provide an employee assistance program (EAP) or a health plan that includes some level of mental health coverage.
  • Organize in-person or virtual meetings for your front-line leaders to support them with tips they can use to manage their teams.
  • Ask your company leaders to use informal videos where they can demonstrate empathy and speak from a personal level about the challenges their employees are facing.
  • Make sure to let all employees know – especially those working from home – about the importance of self-care, adequate exercise and mental breaks during their work hours.

The right way to show empathy depends on your own organizational structure and culture, of course, but work to find simple ways to get started. It could be as simple as asking more, “How are you feeling?” and “How can I help?” questions in your day.

Bottom line: Simple acts of empathy can have profound impacts, not only on your company but on the people you rely on—impacts you’ll definitely see on their face.

Julie Davis is senior director of the Human Resources team at Morgan Hunter, serving Kansas City-area employers to help them meet a range of hiring needs, from temporary staffing to direct-hire placements. Share your thoughts on Facebook, LinkedIn or on Twitter @MorganHunterCo.