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What Happened to Workplace Empathy?
It isn’t just a passing trend for leaders who truly care about their employees—and the bottom line.
Remember workplace empathy? The concept was a hot topic in 2021, when employees were feeling completely depleted by the unrelenting pressures of the pandemic.
Companies like Cisco, Ford, and Pegasystems invested in training seminars to help managers convey empathy. Other employers launched a wide range of policies and benefits—including flexible work arrangements and mental health services—to help leaders meet the needs of their struggling employees.
But with fears of a recession looming, company leaders have shifted their focus of late.
“Unfortunately, what I often see is that human resources and DE&I budgets get slashed really quickly. They're not seen as core to the business,” says Liz Fosslien, the co-author and illustrator of the Wall Street Journal best-seller No Hard Feelings. The book, which dispels the myth that people aren’t supposed to display any emotions in the workplace, was published in 2019. It became a prescient guide for leaders the following year, as they looked for practical advice on navigating the emotional toll of the pandemic.
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Given the quiet shift away from empathy, we wanted to get Liz’s take: Was it always just a passing trend, inspired by a once-in-a-lifetime event? Or has the workplace genuinely evolved into one with more caring norms?
Liz is hopeful empathy is, indeed, here to stay. “Managers at investment banks, law firms, and military-focused organizations—where leaders tend to be white men—have reached out to me in the last two years, saying, ‘People suddenly want to hear us talk about our emotions. What do we do?’ That's a clear signal that, yes, things are changing.”
The Business Case for Empathy
During the pandemic, survey after survey showed that the Great Resignation was driven, in part, by bad bosses. While most people ranked better pay and career opportunities as the top reasons they took a new job, management played a big role, too. An Ernst & Young Survey revealed that many workers left a previous job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work (54%) or in their personal lives (49%). A McKinsey survey found that 34% of people cited “uncaring or uninspiring leaders” as the top reason they quit.
“I do think the companies that are going to be most successful are continuing to invest in [helping their employees],” Liz says. “If you treat people terribly now, maybe you can squeeze some productivity out of them, but in a year or two, you're just gonna see a massive exodus, and it's really going to hurt your business.”
On the flip side, empathetic managers can be a big boost for the bottom line. Employees who have “highly empathetic” managers report higher levels of innovation and engagement and lower levels of burnout, according to a Catalyst survey. It found that:
67% of people with highly empathic managers report often or always being engaged, compared to only 24% of people with less empathic managers.
47% of people with highly empathic managers report often or always being innovative at work, compared to only 13% of people with less empathic managers.
Women who had highly empathic managers experienced less Covid-19-related burnout at work (54%) than women with less empathic managers (63%).
Admittedly, fostering an empathic environment isn’t always easy in our increasingly remote and hybrid working world. Yes, remote work often gives employees (and especially caregiving employees) the flexibility they need, but it can also be tougher to truly connect, on a human level, through a screen.
Given the need for workplace empathy, we asked Liz how managers can make sure they’re truly creating a compassionate culture, especially in a remote environment. Here’s what she suggests:
The Fix: 3 Ways Managers Can Build Connections in a Remote Environment
Make empathy a daily habit. Trainings can be useful for helping managers build their soft skills, but it’s important to remember that empathetic leadership is about cultivating a supportive culture that empowers employees to do their best every day. Employees want to see authenticity and vulnerability in their leaders. Don’t be afraid to share a struggle from your personal life or from your career. Don’t be afraid to mention the stressful events going on in the world that your employees might be struggling to handle. Check in on your team routinely. Ask them, ‘How can I support you? Is anything unclear? What concerns do you have?’
Be intentional about connecting. When you're in an office, you tend to have a natural shared language and context because you're both in the same kitchen talking about the same snacks, for example. It takes more intentionality to build those connections in a remote work environment. You have to create structure around it. On my team, for example, we use the first five minutes of every weekly team meeting to ask a funny question that’s light hearted and equitable. (e.g. What is the most underrated food?) These little moments of levity help us see each other as humans and give us a shared language of inside jokes.
Be intentional about opportunities. Casual, spontaneous connections with colleagues don't happen naturally in a remote setting, so it’s important to help create them for your team members. Help build cross-functional connections and mentorship opportunities. If a person on your team is working on a project and you know another team or organization has focused on the topic in the past, make an introduction, so they get to meet more people outside their immediate circle of coworkers. Also, when there’s a cool opportunity, don't go with the first person that pops in your head or the person who just chatted with on Slack. Make a list and check it twice. Write down the name of everyone on your team and really think through who is the best person suited for the opportunity. Make sure everyone gets a crack at plum projects.
Join us at noon on March 14 for this crucial conversation, and learn how your company can personalize the employee experience. Register here: https://us06web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMrc-msqT8vHNF-RQW0lzp8cvUkK6DN0YAZ.
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