The Importance of Empathy

By: Susan Lucia Annunzio. Category: Newsletters

Has your company been hit by “The Great Resignation”? A record 4.5 million workers quit their jobs in November 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, continuing a trend that began in April. Some who left were taking advantage of the growth in job openings; others wanted higher pay or better working conditions. But a new study by Ernst & Young suggests that how their boss treats them is a key factor in the job exodus.

The study of 1,000 American workers found that their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work (54%) or in their personal lives (49%). Ninety percent of respondents to the survey said that empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction, and 79% agree that it decreases employee turnover.

As we enter year three of the COVID pandemic, few people are untouched. Studies show that people are suffering from increased stress, anxiety and sleeplessness since it began. They need to know that their leaders understand their struggles and care about them as human beings.

Three important reminders:

  1. Don’t pretend that you know how your employees are feeling. An executive doesn’t know what hourly workers feel like, or what personal challenges their employees might be confronting. Do they have elderly parents to take care of? Do they have a child with special needs? Are they in debt?
  2. Ask “how are you feeling?” Give them time to vent, and acknowledge their fears and concerns (“it’s rough working at home, never knowing when your children’s school will shut down”).
  3. Don’t try to talk them out of their feelings (“you shouldn’t feel that way because…”).

It’s also important to make sure people feel valued. One way to do that is to thank them for their efforts. An executive at a family-owned health products company told me that her volume of business has increased during the pandemic, and people are working long hours. Employees also are willingly putting themselves in harm’s way. We decided she would mail handwritten notes to her employees and their family to thank them for living the company’s values through their specific behaviors, including following the protocols of sanitizing, wearing masks and social distancing.

Always remember to be kind, which includes telling them the truth as soon as you know it, particularly if you’re conveying bad news. When you try to protect people by not giving them information, they will make up information that is sometimes worse than the truth.

We all need courageous leaders in times like these. Leaders willing to be direct, tackle tough conversations and show the empathy are greatly needed and appreciated. Remember, empathy is not optional.

If you would like guidance on difficult conversations with employees or peers, I am happy to offer up to two hours of free virtual consultations.