Part of Kathy Caprino’s Series “Today’s True Leadership”
In the past several years, with the deep challenges that the COVID pandemic presented, along with economic hardships, extreme demands at work and at home, workforce reductions and more, it’s become ever clearer that leaders have needed to revise the way they communicate, manage, and strategize. One of the key shifts required has been an increased focus on empathy in the workplace.
Empathetic leadership has been described as having the ability to understand the needs of others, being aware of their feelings and thoughts and communicating that understanding in respectful ways that foster an experience of belonging and trust. Empathy has also been shown to have a direct impact on encouraging motivation, commitment, engagement and innovation, as empathy supports individuals to feel safe and supported, and a part of something bigger than themselves.
Yet so many leaders are still failing to rise to the challenge. And that failure is causing a serious negative impact that can no longer be ignored.
To learn more about this important trend and why empathy matters for workplace success and organizational health, I caught up this month with Raj Sharma, Ernst & Young (EY) Americas Vice Chair for Consulting. He is a global business executive and transformative technology leader with over 25 years of experience in commercial and financial services, building businesses and executing strategic growth initiatives. In his role, Sharma leads 25,000 consultants across the Americas service line.
EY Consulting recently surveyed more than 1,000 employed U.S. workers to examine how empathy affects leaders, employees, and operations in the workplace. The 2023 EY US Empathy in Business Survey found empathetic leadership is a desired attribute but many employees feel it can be disingenuous when not paired with action. This second report highlights that empathy in the workplace drives psychological safety and fosters an experiential culture that allows for experimental failure to generate learning and new ideas.
Sharma shares details about the EY study, what it reveals, and why that’s vitally important for leaders today:
Kathy Caprino: Raj, please describe this study on Empathy and why EY engaged in it.
Raj Sharma: Previous EY Americas Vice Chair of Consulting, Steve Payne, was responsible for rallying consultants around the idea of creating transformation for our clients while driving transformation through our own organization, all without meeting anyone in person during the height of the pandemic. It was an incredible challenge for EY, and we found by becoming more conscious of empathy, we were able to still connect, inspire and bring people together. The study and our work in this area frames “empathy” as this: the ability to understand and share feelings of another person.
We thought it would be helpful to really understand the benefits of an empathetic leadership approach not just for EY, but for our clients as well. That’s when EY US Consulting initially commissioned the research in 2021, and it coincided with the “Great Resignation.”
Even though the economy had changed, we thought it was still valuable to commission a new report a year later to see how employees’ attitudes shifted and what organizations can be doing to continue to effectively engage their talent and ecosystem.
Caprino: What were the most compelling findings and how do they inform leaders about what needs to change or unfold differently for organizations and employees tothrive?
Sharma: The survey finds workers feel that mutual empathy between company leaders and employees leads to increased efficiency (88%), creativity (87%), job satisfaction (87%), idea sharing (86%), innovation (85%) and even company revenue (83%).
While empathy creates work environments that make people feel safe and valued, we were surprised to learn just how much it helps with creativity and innovation. When people feel valued and trust their leaders, it frees them emotionally to do their best work. Empathy has been so valuable and an underrated leadership tool when a company is undergoing transformation, and that’s why this research is so important.
Caprino: The research shows that employees feel the “empathy” that leaders are trying to demonstrate is disingenuous. Tell us more about that, and what are leaders doing wrong and what do employees want more of?
Sharma: A transformation’s success or failure is rooted in human emotions, and this research spotlights just how critical empathy is in leadership. Recent years taught us that leading with empathy is a soft and powerful trait that helps empower employers and employees to collaborate better, and ultimately create a culture of accountability.
Time and again we have found through our research that in order for businesses to successfully transform, they must put humans at the center with empathetic leadership which again is the ability of leaders to both understand and share the feelings of others. This type of empathy is essential for creating transparency and providing employees with psychological safety. Empathy is a powerful force that must be embedded organically into every aspect of an organization, otherwise the inconsistency has a dramatic impact on the overall culture and authenticity of an organization.
Half (52%) of employees currently believe their company’s efforts to be empathetic toward employees are dishonest—up from 46% in 2021, and employees increasingly report a lack of follow-through when it comes to company promises (47% compared to 42% in 2021). This can be the result of leaders just talking theoretically about empathy and failing to implement it into everything they work on throughout the business. Simply “talking the talk” is no longer enough, and our survey further shows the importance and necessity of authentic and “actionable” empathy in the workplace. Leaders should be working to create better connections and relationships with co-workers, and that will in turn help motivate them and feel supported.
To fulfill the authenticity equation, previous EY research indicates offering flexibility is essential and helps employees feel like they are truly empowered to build a work-life balance that works best with their personal lived experience. In the 2022 EY US Generation Survey, 92% of employees surveyed across all four workplace generations said that company culture has an impact on their decision to remain with their current employer.
Caprino: What are some top strategies for leaders, managers and others to increase a true sense of belonging?
Sharma: Empathetic leaders are multi-dimensional—caring, with the ability to have hard conversations, set clear boundaries and expectations, and bring people along in times of change. Key ingredients are authenticity and taking clear action. If you show people who you are and that you have an understanding and appreciation for who they are, it is going to lead to conversations that will make people feel more comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s when you are on your way to building a true culture of belonging and innovation.
Failing to feel a sense of belonging at work or connection with coworkers is a growing reason why employees quit their jobs. About half (50% and 48% in 2021) left a previous job because they didn’t feel like they belonged, and more employees now say they left a previous job because they had difficulty connecting with colleagues (42% vs. 37% in 2021).
Being empathetic is about more than just caring; it is a way to help colleagues feel a sense of belonging and team connection. When you purposely focus on your interactions with the feelings and experiences of others at the forefront it helps build team connection and the authentic sense they are truly part of a team that cares about their wellbeing, both at work and personally.
Empathy also takes understanding. When you combine the two, you end up with actions that resonate. These actions can happen one-on-one or one-to-many. Communication is critical to demonstrating care and to leading with empathy.
Nothing beats one-on-one time with employees and their supervisors, particularly when it comes to making open conversations feel more comfortable. Our empathy studies have also consistently found that a majority of employees (86%) feel that transparency is crucial, so leaders should always prioritize communication and being transparent—meaning the ability to openly and genuinely engage, proactively keeping teams informed and always welcoming feedback—about the state of the business.
It’s important to note that being sympathetic to an issue is not being empathetic. Feeling for someone’s situation is not enough. Truly understanding the issue and putting yourself in their shoes is the only way to create meaningful change in someone’s life.
Caprino: As a former corporate VP, then therapist, and now coaching thousands of professionals around the world, I’ve seen firsthand that the challenge for leaders and managers (and others) in creating a sense of connection and belonging, and demonstrating true empathy is that they actually have to feel empathy. So many people, and particularly men today (the research shows) struggle with feeling and communicating empathy, connection, vulnerability, emotionality and more, due to restrictive societal and cultural training. Mandates that discuss empathy and how it “should” be demonstrated by leaders often fail miserably because the individuals in charge often do not have the capacity for empathy without additional training, guidance and support that go to the deeper issues. What are your thoughts on that and how to address it?
Sharma: We encourage our leaders to role model the behaviors they’d like to see. This means that leaders can demonstrate their caring for and commitment to team members by prioritizing their own well-being and employing positive mental health practices.
Below are some tips on how leaders can demonstrate true empathy in the workplace.
Start by learning about empathy, what it means, and why it is important. This can help you understand the benefits of empathy and how it can enhance your relationships.
Practice active listening
One way to show empathy is by listening actively to others. This means paying attention to what the other person is saying, asking questions to clarify, and summarizing what you’ve heard to ensure you understand correctly.
Use “I” statements
When communicating with others, use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. For example, instead of saying, “You’re not making sense,” say “I’m having a hard time understanding.” This can help others feel less defensive and more willing to share.
Show genuine interest
Show interest in the other person’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Ask open-ended questions that allow them to share more and avoid judging or criticizing their responses.
Be open to being more vulnerable
Being vulnerable (meaning the ability to reveal who we really are and what we genuinely think and feel) can help build trust and connection with others. Share personal experiences and feelings and be willing to listen and empathize with others.
Practice empathy in daily life
Look for opportunities to practice empathy in your daily life. This could include volunteering, helping a friend in need, or simply being kind to others.
Seek professional help
Consider seeking the help of a therapist, counselor or coach to improve your relationships, communication and your style of interacting and relating.
Caprino: Any last words about how to address this organizational challenge today?
Sharma: What happens outside of work has a direct impact on how people show up. It’s no longer enough for leaders to think of a person in one dimension—as an employee or as a professional within the organization. Leading with empathy helps move from the transactional and to the transformational Human Value Proposition, where people feel supported both personally and professionally, and that is the key to being an authentic and empathetic leader.
Engaging in the internal and external work to become more empathetic will help transform your ability to lead and foster the growth and success your organization needs today.
For more information, visit EY Consulting’s empathy study.