How Empathy from Leaders Drives Productivity

Updated: 07 Jun, 2022 | Bill Peatman

A survey of 900 US employees by the nonprofit workplace inclusion advocate Catalyst found a strong correlation between empathy and productivity.

This is not an opinion. It is science.

The survey found that, across industries, age groups, gender, and race,  "empathy is a force for productivity, life-work integration, and positive work experiences." Specifically, "employees with empathic managers and leaders are more innovative and engaged in their work than employees with less empathic managers and leaders."

Employees with empathetic senior-level leaders are:

  • 48 percent more innovative.
  • 63 percent more engaged.

Employees with empathetic managers are:

  • 37 percent more innovative.
  • 43 percent more engaged.

"Our findings illuminate a clear path from senior leader and manager empathy to enhanced employee innovation and work engagement," the report said. "We found that employees with highly empathic senior leaders and managers report being much more creative and engaged than those with less empathic managers and leaders."

Empathy also boosts productivity by improving people's overall health and energy levels. Renowned psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman found that empathy "can reduce the length of hospital stays and even make the common cold go away faster."

"Employees are counting on you to do better and be better, now and in the future," Catalyst said. "It is a business imperative to demonstrate that you understand and care about them, and you are invested in creating an atmosphere where they can be authentic, included, and valued at work."

What is Empathy?

"Empathy is the skill of (1) connecting with others to identify and understand their thoughts, perspectives, and emotions; and (2) demonstrating that understanding with intention, care,  and concern," Catalyst said, citing the Journal of Organizational Behavior. Part one is understanding others' conditions, and part two is doing something to ease those conditions. Understanding someone's situation does little to help if you do not say something and take no action.

Goleman and Ekman break down empathy into three components:

  1. Cognitive--knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking.
  2. Emotional-- when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.
  3. Compassionate-- you take action to help if needed.

How to Lead with Empathy

There is good news for the non-empathetic or low-empathetic leaders. You can learn empathy. "Empathy does not just happen naturally for many people," Goleman and Ekman said. "It is, therefore,  a conscious choice we must make,  but the more we practice empathy, the more intuitive it becomes."

More good news: "Our brains are wired to help," said workplace leadership expert Judith Humphrey. "According to Jamil Zaki's "The War for Kindness," mirror neurons allow us to feel what others near us are feeling. Through practice,  Zaki suggests, we can grow kinder."

Catalyst gives this guidance on how leaders can demonstrate empathy in the workplace.

Cognitive: Ask employees how they are doing so you have the correct information.

  • Intentionally discuss employees' feelings and then reflect on what they have just shared to make sure you understand correctly—without diverting the conversation to your own experiences.
  • Make it a priority to meet with and get to know employees at all levels as whole people,  not as "just workers."

Emotional: Show with your words that you understand and care.

  • If an employee or team shares an emotional experience or difficulty, give them the space to fully explain without interjecting or diverting the conversation.
  • You should not assume your teams and employees know you care about them. Say it when you feel it: "I care about you; I'm concerned, and I understand how challenging this is."

Compassionate: Actively listen and show that you understand more about your colleague's feelings, experiences, or reactions.

  • In one-on-one interactions, whether in person or virtually, if someone pauses while speaking to you, count to five slowly in your head, giving them time to find the right words and indicating that you are listening, and they can keep talking if they wish.
  • Pay attention to employee facial expressions and body language to recognize how they may be feeling; maintain good body posture and eye contact, as culturally appropriate,  to show that you are listening and not multi-tasking.

The Center for Creative Leadership describes active listening as paying close attention to a speaker, understanding what they are saying, responding to and reflecting on what is said, and retaining the information later. Active listening keeps both listener and speaker actively engaged in the conversation. It lists six active listening techniques:

  1. Paying attention.
  2. Withholding judgment.
  3. Reflecting.
  4. Clarifying.
  5. Summarizing.
  6. Sharing.

Depending on the employee's situation, you may not be able to help. That is OK. In most cases,  employees are not asking you to fix their lives, especially when talking about issues outside of work. They want to be heard, understood, and valued.

Why Empathy is Important Now 

A global study by Qualtrics found that 42 percent of people have experienced a decline in mental health since 2020:

  • 67 percent are more stressed.
  • 57 percent are more anxious.
  • 54 percent are emotionally exhausted.

All these experiences impede productivity and engagement. While Humphrey said, "Showing empathy is everyone's responsibility," leaders play a crucial role in making it safe for everyone to practice it.

Employees are resigning in record numbers An Ernst and Young survey of more than 1,000 employees found that 90 percent of US workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction and 79 percent agree it decreases employee turnover. And 54 percent said they left their jobs because of an unempathetic boss.

A Gallup poll echoes these findings: This finding is critical for organizations because employees who strongly agree that their employer cares about their overall wellbeing, in comparison to others, are 69 percent less likely to look for a new job.

Examples of Empathetic Leadership

Some companies have introduced broad new benefits based on employee feedback and experience. Google parent Alphabet gives new moms 16 weeks of parental leave,  for example. Nike,  LinkedIn, and other businesses gave employees a week off—shutting down entirely so that no one felt any pressure to work—in response to widespread employee stress.

Then there is situational empathy. “When people start sharing their challenges, you’re not done yet,” said Michael Garrity, CEO of fintech company FinanceIT. “Then ask ‘What can we do as an organization to make that easier for you?’” Garrity cites an example where a manager at his company shipped a standing desk to an employee suffering back pain in their home office. “I hear about this all the time and it’s one of the things I am most proud of as CEO.”

Hannah Olsen landed her dream job at a design firm out of college but found she could not make it work around her treatment regimen for Lyme disease. She founded Chronically Capable,  a company that helps people with chronic illnesses and disabilities to find flexible jobs and make them work.

A Glue and Accelerant for Business Transformation

"As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders are working to establish business transformation models to adapt to the new normal," said Steve Payne,  EY Americas Vice Chair – Consulting. "Our research finds that empathy is not only a nice-to-have but the glue and accelerant for business transformation in the next era of business.  Empathy's ability to create a culture of trust and innovation is unmatched, and this previously overlooked trait must be at the forefront of businesses across all industries."

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About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.

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