Empathetic leadership

Empathetic Leadership Can Remove Friction, Enable Growth

Coming out of the stressful last two years, the new business mindset is focused on more empathetic leadership and interpersonal business communications.  

To combat high resignation rates, burnout and stress from ongoing social issues, including the pandemic and lack of childcare, business leaders are showing more interest in their employees’ emotional wellbeing, and employees are being more honest with their leaders about how they feel. 

This change in mindset was a common theme in a recent Forbes virtual event, CIO Next: Reimagining CIO Leadership For a Radically Changed World. 

Listen with an open heart to build culture

“Often we don’t like to talk about feelings in the workplace and business,” said Angelic Gibson, chief information officer with AvidXchange, during the event. “But AvidXchange is a people-first business so we need to know what’s going on in our employees’ hearts. Those feelings have to be dealt with.” 

Gibson said empathetic leadership will become only more important as the business world operates post-pandemic. 

"It’s crucial to really see the person in front of you, caring about that person more than the agenda and listen with an open heart. That’s how you build a great corporate culture in these new business conditions.” 

Angelic Gibson, Chief Information Officer, AvidXchange Tweet

 

When there’s friction among employees, leaders have to be willing to “lean into that friction, which is probably some internal emotion going on,” Gibson said. “The businesses that remove friction will grow further and faster.” 

Diane Keng, co-founder and CEO of Breinify, echoed these sentiments during the event.  

“The ability to listen to your employees with an open heart is key,” Keng said. “This is about really getting to the core of emotions of how your employees are feeling.” 

According to Keng, problems that seem big often stem from dissatisfaction about something that’s happened at work. She said it’s “huge to really zone in on that problem and listen.”  

Empathetic leadership is a growing trend

This emphasis on emotion wasn’t an isolated conversation, but part of a larger dialogue across the business community. It’s a growing trend that you’re likely to see become a major business priority across finance and other industries this year. And it makes sense.  

COVID-19 caused a lot of stress in our work and personal lives. Business leaders and employees have been impacted by: 

  • Their health 
  • The economy 
  • Lack of childcare 
  • Hybrid working arrangements   
  • Their disrupted professional careers  

Research backs this up. A 2021 Future of Workplace survey of human resource leaders reveals that 68 percent rated employee mental health and well-being as a high priority. 

“The ability to listen to your employees with an open heart is key. This is about really getting to the core of emotions of how your employees are feeling.”

Diane Keng, Co-founder and CEO, Breinify

Showing empathy for employees

As this trend grows, you’ll see more business leaders practicing empathetic leadership. But “empathy” is often overused. So, let’s pin it down. 

“Empathy is making a consistent effort to understand how others feel – putting oneself in someone else’s shoes,” according to the World Economic Forum. “That means developing emotional intelligence at the enterprise level and genuinely listening to and sympathizing with workers’ feelings.  

“When employees feel heard, understood and cared for, they work harder, take more risks and help others succeed. This in turn improves talent retention.” 

When a business leader demonstrates empathy for an employee, they’re showing they care about that person’s emotional well-being. And like the word empathy, you’re going to be hearing a lot this year about the well-being and overall health of workers. 

In fact, Harvard Business Review reports that companies will add new metrics this year aimed at understanding their employees, such as mental health, to more accurately predict employee performance and retention. 

Tips to practice empathetic leadership

Feelings and emotions can be complicated to unravel. This is why making sure your employees feel good about their work and themselves, and that they know you care about how they feel, is so important. 

Moving ahead, here are a few tips to consider: 

  1. Show you care. Routinely ask your employees how they’re doing emotionally and show interest in their lives outside of work. Find out how you can ease their stress. Ask how they prefer to receive feedback. 
  2. Build a culture of trust. Trust is a two-way street. In fact, if an employee trusts their leader and teammates, they’re seven times more likely to be strongly connected to the business, according to ADP Research Institute. When it comes to empathy, leading by example is important to help employees feel more comfortable talking about their feelings or emotions at work. In addition, leaders can demonstrate trust by giving employees the flexibility to get their work done outside of normal business hours if they have personal obligations, like a doctor’s appointment or they want to catch their kid’s soccer game.
  3. Fight burnout with stimulating work. Employees may feel better about the direction of their careers if they can develop new skills. On a finance team, for instance, investing in accounts payable (AP) automation software can help your AP managers save hours each week by eliminating the need to type in data, sort through piles of scattered paper invoices and payments and chase people for approvals. This frees up time for more strategic work. 

The post-pandemic business world is a new place. With emotions top of mind, leaders who embrace these new norms will thrive.

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