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The Great Resignation: Is the Answer Empathy?

empathetic leadership

If there is one thing that the past 18 or so months has taught us it’s the need for human connection. While empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, it is taking on a new level of meaning and priority as we’ve seen each other struggle as lives have been collectively turned upside down and sideways due to the pandemic.

In learning and development circles, there’s a lot of talk about empathetic leadership, but it’s not always clear how well that “talking the talk” translates into “walking the walk.” Therefore, it’s no real surprise that lack of empathy is one of the drivers of “The Great Resignation.”

A recently released survey by Ernst & Young (EY) of over 1,000 American employees revealed that 54% of workers left a previous job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work, and 49% said employers were unsympathetic to their personal lives. And, company efforts are falling flat. Among the key findings of the survey were that 46% of employees felt company attempts to be empathetic were dishonest, with 42% saying that companies don’t follow through on promises.

In the conversations I have with L&D pros and senior leaders, what I’m seeing is the tension that exists for senior teams to drive results with the need to consider the requirements of people. A lot of senior folks have the “results” side of their brains firing very heavily right now because there are a lot of external pressures.

Yet, as the 2021 EY Empathy in Business Survey clearly underlines is that empathetic leadership could be the secret sauce to retaining and finding employees in the face of the hiring crisis. In recent weeks, many in C-suite positions are actively discussing how to bring empathy to leadership in their organizations.

Steve Payne, EY’s Vice Chair, Consulting, is quoted as saying. “Our research finds that empathy is not only a nice-to-have, but the glue and accelerant for business transformation in the next era of business. Empathy’s ability to create a culture of trust and innovation is unmatched, and this previously overlooked trait must be at the forefront of businesses across all industries.”

The Simple and Profound Power of Empathy

Empathy is one of the most important aspects of creating strong relationships, reducing stress, and enhancing emotional intelligence and self-awareness. When we can be empathetic humans, it allows us to step outside ourselves and see a situation from a different point of view. It elevates the human experience. When empathy becomes part of the organizational culture it creates a safe, non-judgemental space where diverse perspectives are valued, and disputes are more easily resolved and meaningful connections are more deeply forged.

But how do you define an empathetic leader? According to the 2021 EY Empathy in Business Survey, employees describe an empathetic leader as someone who is transparent and fair, and follows through on actions. 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%)

2022: The Year of the Empathetic Leader

Unquestionably, many of us are still in our “bubble world” of remote work. The ability to connect with and support employees and teams has never been more critical to not only stemming the Great Resignation, but to also fostering innovation and thriving through times of disruption and change.

While empathy comes naturally, it can also be learned and honed. So, how do we scale up empathy amongst teams and leaders so it’s less left to chance and more embedded in a leadership development process? In our experience, group coaching and mentoring programs are phenomenal and opening up people’s eyes to the experiences of others and building our self-reflection and self-awareness muscles.

In our cohort sessions, leaders share insights and stories. Studies have shown that a story can increase the levels of oxytocin in a person’s brain, and elicit empathy and subsequent cooperation in the listener. This is just one of the reasons group coaching opens us up to deep learning and behaviour change. Group coaching and mentoring environments help improve listening skills and cultivate compassion.

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