Empathy, the ability to understand the feelings and experiences of another, has been revealed by the global pandemic as an essential skill leaders today must acquire.

When leaders manage their teams with empathy, they are able to address many of the common challenges the employees feel today including burnout, complacency, distrust, and lack of resilience.

Tessa Misiaszek and Michael McCarthy stand in front of a sign reading Harvard University Division of Continuing Education. Empathetic leadership.
Tessa Misiaszek and Michael McCarthy co-teach The Positive Workplace: Building Employee Engagement and Satisfaction at Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education.

There are many challenges that the post-pandemic workplace faces, from high rates of employee attrition to new work environments including fully remote to hybrid work arrangements.

Since the new hybrid workplace creates a situation that makes it harder for people to connect on a personal level, this can lead to the isolation of employees. In addition, families are still navigating the daily ritual of quarantine notices and closed daycares, leaving a parent to often balance children at home while trying to work.

And employees are just plain exhausted. After two years of a global pandemic, people are tired of navigating this new normal and are starting to seek a new way forward.

Ginnie Carlier, Vice Chair of Talent Management for EY, recently shared on The Happy At Work Podcast ways in which EY has recognized these new realities and prioritized the incorporation empathetic leadership when working with colleagues and teams.

Having appointed EY’s first Chief Wellness Officer, the firm is committed to integrating an empathic approach to developing a healthy workplace environment that allows individual employees to seek resources to support their own well-being, as well as helping leaders integrate an empathy skillset when managing teams.

“Empathy is such an important leadership behavior that I think got uncovered pretty quickly in the pandemic.” – Ginnie Carlier

Using Carlier’s experience at EY as an example, here are some things organizations must consider when thinking about how to create — and solidify — empathetic leadership.

Creating an Empathetic Mindset

The key to companies integrating an empathetic approach to managing the workforce begins with the recognition that empathetic leadership cannot be an “add-on” training, nor is it only about the way we communicate with others.

Empathy is a skillset that begins with building a level of self-awareness that will allow employees to monitor one’s own thoughts and detect physical stress in the body that may lead to burn out.

Mindfulness is a tool that is vital in being able to build the self-awareness muscle. It can be defined as purposely paying attention not just to one’s thoughts, but also to our physiology — the way our bodies feel at any point in time.

By understanding how the body feels when we are in a stressed state, a person can identify if they need to take a break to calm down by taking a few deep breaths. By practicing mindfulness and becoming acquainted with the feelings of stress, a manager could be more aware of their response to high-stakes situations including with a disgruntled employee or when dealing with an angry customer.

Communicating with Empathy

Building an empathic skillset also includes learning to communicate in a way that the other person feels seen and heard. These are skills that leaders across industry should explore.

“When we are able to come and talk to them about the importance of well-being and really thinking about the importance of you know empathetic leadership it sparks a whole different type of conversation because they’re going through this as well…” – Ginnie Carlier

In building an empathetic leadership approach, an organization can reap many positive benefits.

Empathic communication will build trust between employees over time. This, in turn, will improve team dynamics and encourage more transparency between workers and managers as problems arise.

Empathetic communication also helps managers have those difficult conversations with employees that many of us would want to avoid. With good communication skills that encourages candor with understanding, managers can hold their team members accountable and keep the dialogue open with the hope of coming to an agreed-upon resolution.

An essential ingredient to empathic communication includes active listening.

Active listening is when a person listens with intent and very mindfully—being completely focused on the person they are speaking with, without multitasking. It is not just important to listen carefully for every word the other person says. You must also show that you are listening by having good eye contact, demonstrating with facial expressions that you are listening, as well as by asking follow-up or clarifying questions.

By applying an active listening technique to empathic communication, the other person will not just feel heard, but likely understood as well.

These elements of empathetic leadership all lead to increased employee retention. During a time that is being marked by terms such as The Great Resignation or The Great Reshuffling, retention is of vital importance to any company as it is far more expensive to lose a great employee with institutional knowledge than having to compete with other firms in hiring new talent. When companies move from a transactional approach to managing employees to a empathic approach, they develop a more loyal workforce that will lead the organization into the future.