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The Key to Ending the Great Resignation? Empathetic Leadership.

New Ernst & Young Survey shows more people have left jobs because their boss lacked compassion.

The secret to hanging onto employees during the Great Resignation? Empathy.

As many as 90% of U.S. workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction and 79% agree it decreases employee turnover, according to the 2021 EY Empathy in Business Survey, which tracks how empathy affects leaders, employees and innovation in the workplace. The survey of more than 1,000 U.S. workers reveals that many have left a previous job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work (54%) or in their personal lives (49%).

Leaders are just now recognizing the importance of empathy, because COVID-19 dramatically transformed the workforce. The pandemic put our personal lives on display at work, and remote work became a pressure cooker for juggling sick loved ones and childcare with work without boundaries, and creating an environment in which people have felt lonelier and more disconnected than ever.

“You need to understand the entirety of people’s needs versus just professional needs,” says Marcelo Bartholo, Ernst & Young America’s deputy vice chair of consulting. “Empathy is the secret sauce.”

Add to that, the pressures that employers and employees now feel due to the Great Resignation. Burnout has hit an all-time high: More than 50% of workers interviewed this past spring by job site Indeed said they were experiencing burnout, up from 43% last year. People are also working longer hours than they did pre-pandemic, and they’re leaving their jobs in droves: 4.4 million workers walked away from their jobs in September alone, and those that are left are doing more with less. 

“Employee needs and desires have not been met,” says Gena Cox, an organizational psychologist and founder of executive coaching firm Feels Human Inc. in Tampa, Florida. “And those (needs and desires) are being the best that they can be and to really feel valued. It’s about making me believe you see me as a human being.”

Leaders who tune into how people are really feeling don’t micromanage, say thank you and make work flexible around individual needs—those will be the ones who keep employees, prevent burnout and, in turn, ignite creativity and innovation. 

Workers say empathetic leadership, according to EY’s survey, inspires positive change within the workplace and fuels productivity and trust among employees and leaders. Another survey, the Humankindex Survey, conducted by IT consulting firm Signature Consultants, found that companies are five times more likely to be considered innovative if they embrace kindness as a leadership quality. And people want to work there: six in 10 workers surveyed by Signature say they’d take a kind leader over a 5% pay raise. 

Yet most companies have veered in the opposite direction in the past two years. As many as 46% of people surveyed by Ernst & Young said leadership was dishonest, and 42% of them said their managers did not follow through on what they promised. The Humankindex found 76% of workers said their company’s leadership has embraced the value of “profits before people” the same or more since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unquestionably, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in myriad personal and professional challenges. The ability to have honest conversations in the workplace is crucial. At least 85% of employees surveyed by EY say that it’s important for organizations to cultivate a climate in which diverse perspectives are valued. However, about a third of employees are not comfortable advocating for cultural changes within their organization, and one in four do not feel comfortable raising ethical concerns.

What Is Empathetic Leadership?

So what does an empathetic leader look like? Three characteristics mark an empathetic leader: transparency, fairness and follows through on actions, says Bartholo. The top five qualities employees look for in an empathetic senior leader are:

  • Open and transparent (41%)
  • Fair (37%)
  • Follows through on action (37%)
  • Encourages others to share their opinions (36%)
  • Trusted to handle difficult conversations (34%)

“It’s really a matter of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and listening to the needs of an individual,” Bartholo says. The response to those needs is equally important. It must be personal, whether that’s a flexible schedule for a parent trying to get their children to school in the morning, or being open to take actions on concerns about a person’s mental health, or complaints of sexual or racial discrimination. 

What can help? Team-building exercises and training or communication workshops can be helpful, as well as  frequent reminders that people are safe to have open discussions. Employees say they also tend to be more comfortable opening up to a boss if there are regularly scheduled one-on-ones and opportunities for anonymous feedback, according to the EY survey. Those kinds of check-ins could stave off severe nose-dives among employees that lead to poor performance, boredom, mistakes, and physical and mental health problems.

“It’s a chance to understand what’s really going on, not just about getting the job done,” says Cox. “It’s ‘What’s going on? What do you need? How can I help you?’ Those kinds of conversations fall more into the realm of empathy because what we are trying to understand is the true experience and provide that safety and space for employees. That connection.”

Make it Part of the Culture

Empathy can be somewhat subjective in executive leadership, and it’s not easy to get across the board inside a company.  

“It has to start at the top,” says Cox. It can’t be solely a program instituted by HR. It has to be top leaders behaving in ways that are empathetic and more caring of employees. Even if someone leans empathetic, if they don’t feel the support of the company’s culture, they may not necessarily behave that way, Cox says.

Mahfuz Ahmed made the shift to empathetic, kind leadership four years ago. As CEO of Signature Consultants in McLean, Virginia, he considered whether his young adult children would ever want to work at a company like his, and his answer was doubtful. He realized that his company wouldn’t grow and be sustainable in the years to come if he didn’t embrace empathy. 

“Before, the business was outcome oriented. It was ‘go get it done right now. Work is number one, everything else is number two,’” he says. 

Ahmed shifted this and instituted kindness and empathy as a core value at Signature, a 11,000-employee company with 76 offices around the world. For instance, he says that Signature employees who were parents felt almost embarrassed for taking time off to pick up their children from work. So the company created an unlimited time off policy called Responsible Time Off. 

“It says, basically, that if you’re getting your work done, do what you need to do in your personal life as well so that you’re comfortable,” he says. Empathy doesn’t mean that there is lack of accountability, he says, it is balancing workload and flexibility. 

And it’s not just leaders and managers. All employees were encouraged to be compassionate and supportive of each other when a peer needed a break or was struggling. 

Empathy Drives Growth

Empathy pays off. Beyond improving employee satisfaction and decreasing turnover rates, Ernst & Young’s survey found that mutual empathy between leaders and employees increases efficiency, creativity, innovation and revenue. 

Ahmed saw that first-hand at Signature. Turnover shrank and the company grew 6% in 2020 and is on track for 22% growth this year.  “We saw the trust in leadership go up and productivity,” Ahmed says. Earlier this year, Signature was acquired by ​​DISYS, another IT consulting firm, in part because of the kindness culture.  

There’s a big caveat to this leadership style. You can’t force people to care. Not everyone is built that way. “You either have it or you don’t,” says Bartholo. 

With that in mind, Signature has often “kindly asked people to exit” if they cannot lead with empathy, says Ahmed. He says it’s a matter of replacing a cutthroat ‘survival of the fittest’ approach with a more humanistic approach.

“It’s ‘survival of the kindest,’” he says. “It really will play a significant role in helping employers win the battle for talent and strive toward innovation.”