January 21, 2023

Want Better Leaders? Teach Them To Be Empathetic

5 min read
By Khairunnisa Mohamedali PhD

As organisations and their people experience crisis, struggle with burnout, or find it challenging to find happiness and purpose in their work, are empathetic leaders shifting from a “nice to have” to a strategic imperative?

Over half (52%) of US workers experienced burnout in 2021. Over the past two years, the long-lasting pressure of the pandemic has pushed many people to their limits in and out of the workplace. Over the next year, organisations are set to be further tested on how they will handle issues including rising inflation, supply chain disruption, hybrid work arrangements, and geopolitical instability.

The direct impact of these external factors on the world of work is seismic, particularly on those most affected by a fluctuating economy. We can see this reflected in the values people (both Gen Z and otherwise) are starting to expect from their employers: 66% of Gen Z would switch jobs to have a better work-life balance, and 22% of employees rank “being supported” as the most important aspect they look for in an employer, outranking salary.

Parallel to this, the skills needed to be an effective leader have moved far beyond the traditional role of “conductor”. As the lines between work and home life continue to blur after the remote working revolution, Hybrid leaders are expected to be coaches, mentors, and champions, always alert to the potential for employee burnout and knowledgeable on the actions needed to prevent it.

Unfortunately, research shows most people find their managers to be less than ideal, with 75% of employees in a recent survey citing the most stressful aspect of their job being their immediate boss.

The solution? Cultivating empathetic leadership practices can be a powerful antidote to employee burnout, and go a long way in providing people with the authenticity they crave from their organisations. It can help productivity, too: a study by Catalyst found that empathy, when used well, has a significant positive impact on both organisations and teams:

  • Engagement: 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged, compared with only 32% who experienced less empathy.
  • Retention: 57% of white women and 62% of women of color said they were unlikely to think of leaving their companies when they felt their life circumstances were respected and valued by their companies.
  • Inclusivity: 50% of people with empathetic leaders reported their workplace was inclusive, compared with only 17% of those with less empathetic leadership.

How to initiate change:

So, what steps can people leaders take to facilitate an empathetic leadership style, and in turn, foster a more transparent and productive business?

1. Demonstrate Empathy throughout your organisation. Empathy, like all skills, is learned – not innate. Role modelling vulnerability from your senior leaders will go a long way in demonstrating that this is a core skill embedded in your organisation’s very DNA. Are your people leaders aware of the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace, able to manage change effectively, and confident in their ability to respond to the emotions of their people? If not, consider how you might champion and role model empathy as an organisation, and upskill your leaders.

2. Create safe spaces for your people to communicate their needs. A supportive organisational culture will make your people feel safe enough to tell you what their boundaries are, where they are flagging, and when they need to focus on their work/life balance. This helps facilitate better collaboration between your people leaders and their teams, and goes a long way in helping them avoid joining the 52% of US workers that experienced burnout in 2021.

3. Respect life circumstances. Effective collaboration is not just about content and coordination, but also building shared understanding, relationships, and trust between your people and their leaders. Research shows that feeling “othered” and on-guard to protect against bias and discrimination because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity imposes an emotional tax on people that impacts their ability to thrive, both in and out of the workplace. Ensure your people leaders are providing their teams spaces to feel included at work. This lets them know they have a voice in your organisation – and more importantly, that voice is being heard.

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