Empathetic Leadership: Why It’s Important In The Workplace

Empathetic Leadership: Why It's Important In The Workplace

By its dictionary definition, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another individual. Not to be confused with sympathy, the feeling of sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Simply put, empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes. In the workplace, empathetic leadership is a genuinely pivotal leadership quality for successful companies.

Since executives, managers, and HR representatives can never know what is entirely going on in their employees’ lives, leading with empathy reverts judgements and brings objective viewpoints to complex situations. To move an organization through both prosperous and challenging times, leaders must embrace this non-traditional management strategy to bring about well-rounded success. By understanding employees’ needs while being aware of their thoughts and feelings, empathetic leaders can establish authentic connections with their team and improve overall productivity. 

New Research Shows Difficulty with Empathy in the Workplace

However, in research conducted by OnePoll and Learn to Live, some surprising realities regarding empathy in the workplace have surfaced. According to the study of over 2,000 Americans, more than half (62%) fear their employer will judge them for taking a mental health day. Rather than taking time off for mental health care, 67% agree that they’d instead tell their employer that they “have an appointment.” Additionally, 56% believe that their employer would think they’re unable to perform in the future if they request a mental health day. These shocking numbers reflect a lack of empathy in the workplace towards personal challenges. Likewise, there exists a significant remaining presence of stigmatized attitudes towards mental health.

And it’s not just employees and subordinates who sense this lack of empathy. CEOs and HR professionals are struggling too. According to the 2021 State of Workplace Empathy Report by The Businessolver, 7/10 CEOs reported that they find it hard to demonstrate empathy at work consistently. Leaders fear they will lose respect if they show empathy—68% of CEOs agreed with this statement. Both of these statistics increased by 30-points since 2020. The stress of the ongoing pandemic is not helping the situation. 

Likewise, even though 94% of employees (at all levels) believe that mental health is as important as physical health, cognitive dissonance still exists. 82% of CEOs believe that someone with a mental health issue is viewed as “weak” or a burden to the company. And 70% of subordinate employees agree. No wonder very few employees feel empathized by their employers to take a mental health day

 

So Why is Empathy So Hard to Show at Work?

Firstly, even outside of the workplace, it’s not always easy to understand exactly how others feel in a given scenario. Complex underlying factors can make it hard for even the given individual to understand their feelings fully. Secondly, practicing empathy means putting others before yourself. Doing so may be harder said than done in competitive workplace environments with complex demands and economic pressures. Thirdly, organizations may compromise empathy for short-term gain, sometimes at the cost of employees because it’s the easy way out. However, with growing mental health concerns and burnout impacting employee well-being and productivity, we cannot simply settle.

 

How Empathy Can Help

To be an effective leader, one must integrate empathy into everyday work practices. As Forbes puts it, “empathy neutralizes negativity.” By leading with empathy, you’ll better understand the needs of your team and therefore be better equipped to conquer any challenge that lies ahead. When you are dissatisfied or upset with an employee, the ability to place yourself in that individual’s perspective can soften negative judgements and bring clarity to come to an equitable, mature, and objective solution. It must also be made clear that leading with empathy does not endorse poor job performance but instead supports finding, and fixing, the root cause behind impacts in performance. 

And guess what? Workers are taking notice and beginning to expect empathetic leadership. In fact, the Businessolver report found that 90% of Gen Z employees say that they’re more likely to stay with an empathetic employer.

Leading with empathy in the workplace also reduces stigma. In a welcoming environment where it is not stigmatized to tell your employer that you’re struggling or even take a mental health day, more employees will reach out for help. Creating an empathetic workplace thereby reduces built-up worker burnout from not accessing adequate well-being resources. 

Furthermore, data analyses from the Center for Creative Leadership of over 6,000 managers in 38 different countries found that workplace empathy positively relates to job performance. In practice, bosses view leaders who practice empathy towards their subordinates as better performers. By enabling effective and clear communication, empathy in the workplace leads to improved positive interactions, boosted worker morale, and enhanced productivity. It’s a powerful tool in becoming a respected executive. 

 

“As a leader, I know this road has not been easy, and the future is still uncertain; however, I am confident that no matter what twists in the road we meet, empathy can propel us safely around the curves.” – Jon Shanahan, President and CEO of Businessolver.

 

Empathetic Practices from Businessolver: 

  • Embrace a new outlook on empathy.
  • Listen to employees and adopt new benefits accordingly.
  • Prioritize diversity and inclusion.
  • Create an open culture around mental health to reduce stigma.
  • Champion empathy.