Updated: Jan 7
Exploring ’21 Ernst & Young data about employee sentiment and the “Great Resignation” in the US job market and how empathy can be used to proactively affect attrition and retention. With empathy expert, Michael Tennant — Founder and CEO of Curiosity Lab.
After a year of working with organizations creating emotional and psychological safety for their teams to explore the important issues facing our lives and jobs today, it’s clear to me that empathy will be at the center of any discussion about the future of work.
As the nation emerges from the Covid19 pandemic, the aftershock of our collective introspection remains to be cataloged. Oft reported is the “great resignation” that’s happening in the US job market, a recent EY study offers some color suggesting that empathy might be a key driver of employee attrition and retention. I’ve spent the last year and a half studying and adapting tools to support people in their self-care and improvement, goal setting, and relationship building personally or professionally because today tools of empathy are crucial for healthy individuals and organizations.
Employees Leaving Due to Leaders Lacking Empathy
According to the EY survey of more than 1,000 Americans who are employed, nearly 50% left their previous job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work (54%) or in their personal lives (49%). These numbers show a need to venture outside the comfort zone of workplace customs of the past. These days, it might serve people leaders and managers well to ask their employees about how they are feeling.
With many jobs remaining remote, and insecurity lingering about Covid19, the racial justice movement of 2020, and rising economic uncertainty, it’s likely that your team will be facing feelings of fear at some point in the future and lacking outlets to support.
While it would be a tall order to train all people leaders as therapists, it’s imperative that our managers possess some base level skill set of interpersonal and situational awareness to navigate the emotional needs of our evolving workforce. Simply by training our people leaders to show genuine interest in the challenges their employees face, both at work and in their personal lives, our efforts can have a dramatic effect on culture and turnover.
This may be a lot to ask, however, of the people leaders who are currently in place. Most CEOs and Executives, let alone the people who manage staff on their behalf, struggle with this level of self-care, awareness, and vulnerability. And who’s to blame them? These considerations weren’t priorities over the recent past let alone the decades of business that have reared them and reared their former bosses and even parents. The boomers and Gen Xers who molded us, rewarded following their model of work ethic, seeking their standards of achievement, and adhering to their reverence for self-sacrifice.
Technically, our places of work have been getting safer, more inclusive, and more efficient, if we truly compare to the past 10–20–30 years. This cycle of subjugation of self for the good of the bottom line has been the norm for the duration of capitalism and western civilization before then. So truly, there is no definitive guidebook or manual for how leaders should behave going forward in a more self-aware and equitable world.
The Top Qualities Employees Look For In Empathetic Senior Leaders
The EY survey offers some clues. For the leaders out there looking to chart their own path and set new models of leadership, the top qualities employees look for in an empathetic senior leader are openness and transparency (41%), fairness (37%), a track record of following through on their actions (37%), being known for encouraging others to share their opinions (36%) and grounded enough to be trusted when handling difficult conversations (34%).
Employees expect their leader to have the EQ, confidence, and selflessness, to listen and share openly, and to have the conversations no one else is willing to have. It’s not always easy, but empathetic leaders are willing to show up and stand in the difficult emotions to achieve greater representation and discourse, leading to more creative and effective action.
It might come as a surprise that empathy is equally useful and impactful for businesses and organizations in an offensive or proactive posture, as it is for those in the reactive stance playing empathy triage or defense.
The EY survey looked at key measures of efficiency, productivity, happiness, and innovation and found empathy played a powerful role. A remarkable 89% of employees agreed that empathy leads to better leadership. 88% feel that empathetic leadership inspires positive change in the workplace, and 85% report that empathetic leadership in the workplace increases productivity among employees. Further, employees agree that mutual empathy between leaders and employees increased efficiency (87%), creativity (87%), innovation (86%), and company revenue (81%).
While most of my conversations about empathy have started in reaction to the state of fear in the world around us, the wise investment is to strengthen tools of empathy all-year-long because aside from the enumerable culture benefits to a diverse team that trusts one another, comes the muscle memory that’s able to kick in in moments of crisis.
Finding Empathetic Leaders and Learning From Their Experiences
Recently, for a multi-platform content series we’re developing called Driving Change From The Inside, I interviewed four leaders in organizations across the country like NASA, NPR, and Havas Group, about the past year driving diversity, equity, and inclusion priorities.
In my most recent interview, I spoke with Stephanie Royal, the Chief People Officer at Robin Hood Foundation who filled me in on their organization’s response to Covid19 and the rise of the racial justice movement.
The narrative I told myself, after speaking with many in for-profit business, education, and even government, was that Robin Hood Foundation would have struggled and seen some of their blind spots exposed.
The narrative I heard was quite the opposite. Robin Hood, a mission-driven organization that had previously (2018) begun the process of addressing cultural issues and issues of inequity to reshape their organization to be in line with the people they serve and the values they stand for, actually thrived.
They doubled down on efforts to become an “anti-racist” organization by bringing in outside consultants to audit their efforts alongside their internal and external facing efforts. Using experience and systems from disaster response to 9–11 and Hurricane Sandy, they achieved record fundraising and grant deployment milestones.
Most importantly, given that according to EY nearly half (48%) have left a job because they didn’t feel like they belonged, their already diversified workforce remains fired up to address issues of safety, belonging, and inequity in their own ranks head-on, whilst proactively identifying and addressing local, state, and federal policy that perpetuate inequality in our communities.
Installing Empathy Into Organizations Is Harder Than It Sounds
Doing the work of installing empathy in an organization is not easy. It requires a hard look at what’s working and what isn’t, who has it and who doesn’t, and making a commitment to moving the needle forward consistently as a priority for your business.
I’m calling “it” empathy for the moment, but this takes different forms. Is it about caring for employee mental well-being and burnout for you? Is it about employee safety, engagement, chemistry, and retention? Is it about correcting representation issues before your organization is so far out of harmony with our nation and our future workforce that there is no turning back?
More radically, is it an acceptance that the shifting sensibilities of the public do not apply to your organization and thus you chose to have empathy for what’s meaningful to you and the values that you uphold — whether the public likes it or not. For me, empathy is about knowing yourself and your people intimately and using that expanded awareness to strengthen your culture and your impact.
We help organizations do this through designing check-ins and exercises that create moments to practice key skills of empathetic leadership. We call it the 5-phases of empathy model, starting inward at the self and building outward to our individual or collective societal impact. Many know about the three types of empathy — cognitive, somatic, and affective — but few have devised fun and interactive ways of practicing and strengthening each so that we are more equipped to call on these skills instinctively when the situation calls.
Our model facilitates the practice of active listening, self-other awareness, perspective-taking, and nonviolent communication skills, crucial for empathetic leadership in work and in life. It’s about bringing our sixth sense of emotions into the conversation and using it to create greater awareness of ourselves and those around us. A model that leads to greater intrinsic awareness and motivation at its worst, and to greater integrity, connection, and positivity at its best. Who wouldn’t want to unlock greater happiness and well-being for themselves, their closest connections, and those that they serve? Perhaps an unempathetic leader would. Don’t let that be you.
Michael A. Tennant
Michael Tennant is a former media, advertising, and non-profit veteran, founder of Curiosity Lab, and the creator of Actually Curious the Card Game and ValuesExercise.com. Featured by NY Times, Entrepreneur, Inc, NBC Today, and more, Michael uses his storytelling platform to spread necessary narratives around diversity, mental health, and empathy.
Want to learn more about how Curiosity Lab helps leaders infuse more empathy and inclusivity into the culture of their organizations? Schedule an individual or organizational empathy consultation by visiting www.curiositylab.io.
Michael is the founder of Curiosity Lab as well as the creator of Actually Curious™, a card game that brings people together while teaching active listening and empathy. He and Shauna talk about meeting people where they are with empathy, figuring out what matters to you, hustle culture, and much more!
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