Making a Business Case for Empathy

Making a Business Case for Empathy, by Ryan Hansen

Breaking News: Work sucks.

Okay, so maybe that's not exactly breaking news, and allow me to apologize for starting off on such a cheeky note. The truth is, this is a tough time for employees and employers alike. But, of course, you already know this. You've seen the headlines. Layoffs abound. Quiet Quitting. The Great Resignation.

We can unpack the causes behind each of these at another time, but the effects have been unmistakable. Employees are stressed out, and with good reason. Inflation has reduced the value of their paycheck, and childcare is harder to find than ever before. Layoffs and turnover have stripped teams of years' worth of institutional knowledge and left fewer, newer hands to do the same amount of work. In some cases, the work has even increased. Scope creep, or "quiet hiring," is becoming more and more common as managers ask their top employees to fill gaps by taking on more responsibilities without any change to their title or compensation.

So, what can leaders do to help their people? Raises and promotions all around, right? Much, much easier said than done, I'm afraid. No, this is a complex business case, and I believe the best solution is based on a complex human skill: empathy.

Allow me just a moment to make a sales pitch for the impact of empathetic leadership. Studies have found that empathy at work can lead to:

Increased employee engagement. When our team members know that we care about them and their needs, they feel valued and supported, which invites them to commit to and engage with the work they do. Increased engagement has been shown to help with employee satisfaction, retention, absenteeism, and even stock price.

Improved communication. Leaders who understand their employees' perspectives can communicate more effectively by tailoring their messages to fit the team's needs.

Higher levels of trust. Employees are more likely to trust leaders who show empathy because they feel that their leaders have their best interests at heart. Trust leads to stronger relationships between everyone, and a healthier culture at work.

Increased innovation: Empathetic leaders encourage their employees to share their ideas and take risks, which can lead to more innovation and creativity in the workplace. When employees feel that their ideas are valued and that they are supported in taking risks, they are more likely to come up with new and innovative solutions to problems.

Improved employer brand. People want to work for people who care about them, and when people love their jobs they refer their friends.

Empathy is no silver bullet, though. Like so many other soft skills, empathy requires a committed leader who is willing to go the extra mile to demonstrate their interest in and understanding for their teams. In practice, empathetic leadership shows up in a number of ways:

When they talk, you listen. Empathetic leaders know how to make their reports feel like the most important member of the team. This means actively avoiding distractions, allowing plenty of time for the team member to share, and paying attention to the tone and body language with which your employee is sharing their story.

Be curious. Empathetic leaders take a genuine curiosity about the lives of the people they work with (within reasonable boundaries), and they show their interest by asking questions about their experiences, their families, and their aspirations.

Assume positive intent. We all have one thing in common at work: we want to be successful. So, when someone misses our expectations, we can reasonably assume that they were trying to do the right thing. Instead of blaming, we can ask questions to understand why they came up short. Try this: "What do you think went wrong? Let's talk through it and decide how we can avoid this outcome next time." Or, "I understand you were pushing yourself to try something new. Let's talk through a few ways to improve for next time."

Help your employees reach their personal and professional goals. If you really want your employees to feel valued and develop a sense of loyalty, find out what they want to do beyond their current role. Are they passionate about this particular industry, or are they building their resume while they save up to open a bakery? Maybe they are training for a marathon or planning their next excursion to Europe. Taking the time to know what each team member is looking for - even years or decades from now - equips you to help them find value in their current role.

The bottom line is this: Your team is feeling over-worked and under-resourced, and they need you more than ever right now. It is up to you to identify what they need from you. It may be your time, your expertise, your connections, or your support, but you can be sure that your extra efforts will go a long way to build lasting relationships with your team.


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