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With employee turnover at an all-time high, practicing empathy might be the missing puzzle piece to creating a better culture and retaining top talent. 

High employee turnover has always been a problem for employers, but with the Great Resignation still in full swing, many HR and benefits administration professionals are racking their brains for solutions on how to retain top talent. With more than 47.8 million workers quitting their jobs in 2021, and an average of 4 million a month quitting in 2022, HR professionals rightly have a cause for concern. 

It’s no secret that high turnover rates can be detrimental to a company’s culture and bottom line. However, is it possible that the key to increasing employee retention isn’t as complicated as it appears?

While there’s no magic bullet to stop employees from resigning and moving on to greener pastures, a critical element to retaining top talent starts with empathetic leadership.

What is empathetic leadership?

To fully understand empathetic leadership, it’s vital first to understand what empathy means. Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and experience the feelings of another. In the world of business, this means making an effort to appreciate the employee as a whole person. 

Empathetic leaders connect with employees and strengthen comradery across departments, leading to increased retention and performance throughout an organization. While this sounds simple, the reality is that many executives still struggle with empathy. 

Does empathetic leadership happen naturally, or can it be learned?   

Our 2022 State of Workplace Empathy Study revealed that only 69% of employees believe their organizations were empathetic (down from 71% in 2021).  

Even more shocking is that 79% of CEOs say they struggle to be empathetic, with most CEOs concerned they would lose respect for being too empathetic.  

This ever-growing “empathy gap” is a testament to shifting priorities from executive leadership away from empathetic leadership and back to the bottom line. If most executive leaders struggle with empathy, the biggest question of all is whether empathy is something that can be learned or if it is something that occurs naturally. 

According to scientific research, genetics only account for approximately 10% of overall empathy. The remainder is learned throughout adolescence from parents, teachers, and other influential figures. For the average C-level executive who struggles in this area, the good news is empathy can be learned. 

What steps can executive leaders take to become more empathetic? 

To truly foster a company-wide culture of empathy, empathy needs to start with executive leaders. Instead of shying away from empathy, CEOs must adopt a “Chief Empathy Offer” mindset to help with retention and create a more engaged workforce. 

1. Boost your listening skills. 

Leadership is often synonymous with public speaking and presenting, but one of the best ways to show empathy is by becoming a great listener. Empathetic listening means placing an extra emphasis on understanding another person’s perspective and allowing them to speak up openly. 

By lending a listening ear instead of immediately jumping into a solution, team members can contribute and feel heard. This doesn’t happen overnight though; the key to improving listening skills lies in repetition and awareness. 

2. Be sensitive to employee needs. 

Another way leaders can practice empathy is by becoming more sensitive toward employee needs. The Great Resignation highlighted the importance of flexibility in the workplace, especially when dealing with return-to-office plans. Over three-quarters of employees prefer a hybrid work schedule that would allow them to decide whether they would go into the office or work from home. 

Flexibility is a great place to start for leaders who want to be more empathetic, but it’s important to also update employee programs regularly, provide a variety of ways for workers to give feedback, and find unique ways to foster company values.  

3. Incorporate DEI initiatives into your workplace . 

Cultivating a diverse and inclusive workplace is something every leader should strive for whether they are trying to be more empathic or not. More than a checkbox, DEI initiatives should be woven into every aspect of the business. Every employee brings a unique perspective to the business; building positive bonds between populations is a win-win. 

Join us Aug. 16 for our executive roundtable webinar, “Eavesdropping on the C-Suite: How executives are responding to the empathy gap.” Executive Panelists will share their first-hand experience and recommendations for the current empathy disconnect.  

View all Posts by Marcy Klipfel