According to a recent survey by the job site Joblist, nearly three-quarters of American workers are actively thinking about quitting their jobs. Of the respondents who reported quitting their last job, 19 percent cited that they were unhappy with how their employers treated them during the pandemic. And 17 percent quit to find better pay and benefits, while 20 percent chose to seek a new career altogether.
Traditional employment power dynamics have clearly faded. Fueled by economic circumstances stemming from the pandemic and shifting political and cultural perspectives on employment, it’s time to stick a fork in the concept of employee loyalty altogether. Instead, employers should strive for a culture of empathy to curb turnover and elevate employee engagement and enthusiasm.
While much has been written about how employers and managers can show empathy to employees, that’s only one part of empathy matrix. In order for this model to effectively reduce turnover, employers must influence employees to reciprocate that empathy back to ownership, management and their colleagues. That’s often easier said than done.
First, understand that empathy exists on a spectrum, therefore nobody is completely devoid. In situations where it appears absent, it’s simply diminished, often through adverse conditioning, defense mechanisms or other psychological factors. It’s also an ability that can be developed, and that’s why leadership holds the key to unlocking empathy throughout the organization.
Because of this spectrum, some employees will be more resistant to empathy than others. Those who demonstrate selfishness, for example, are conditioned to prioritize their own professional ambitions over the needs of their employers, colleagues and customers. They often push the boundaries of reciprocity, viewing work relationships as purely transactional and leaving little room for genuine camaraderie or compassion. These narcissistic views and behaviors are becoming more prevalent in the current climate, with workers even publicly touting and celebrating that mindset online. While it’s best for employers to part ways with workers who display extreme selfness, others can be reconditioned through positive leadership.
Understand that it’s human nature to more easily empathize with groups that share identities, social status or organizational status. This is called intergroup empathy bias, and researchers warn that it “…maximizes differences between groups, leading people to more readily distrust, fear, and discriminate against outgroup members and to instinctively favor or side with members of social groups with which they identify.” Employees, therefore, are predisposed to resist empathizing with management and leadership.
Given the social and psychological hurdles employers must overcome to instill an organizational culture of empathy, it’s important that they be mindful, genuine and deliberate in how they approach it. To curb turnover and enhance performance through mutual empathy, employers and managers must consistently lead by example, establish common ground and be honest and direct with employees.
Set The Example
Given that many employers and managers, myself included, started their careers at the bottom of the totem pole and worked their way up, it can be mentally and emotionally easier for employers to relate with employees than it is for employees to relate with their employers. Of course, that’s not always the case.
Owners and managers who advanced their careers in environments with little empathy might view that dynamic as a rite of passage for junior staff. Others might be so far removed from subordinate positions that they lose any emotional perspective on the experience. Regardless of the situation, those at the top must lead by example, and that starts by recalibrating how they demonstrate genuine empathy to employees.
Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s not enough to simply ask employees how they are doing. An empathetic employer should ask them how they are really doing and encourage them to open up and share their feelings – especially when they show signs of stress or frustration. And they must listen, offer support and show each employee that they truly care and understand.
Simple gestures like that can make all the difference and lay the groundwork for mutual empathy and deeper workplace relationships. When leadership takes that approach, individuals within the company will be far more likely to reciprocate.
Establish Common Ground
Knowing that intergroup empathy bias exists, employers and managers should prioritize establishing both work and non-work-related commonalities. They should periodically roll up their sleeves and work side-by-side with employees at all levels of the organization – perhaps spending a day the call center fielding customer inquiries or placing outbound sales calls. By occasionally working alongside employees, leaders can better humanize themselves and develop deeper levels of comradery and understanding that would otherwise be difficult to establish.
Beyond work, employers and managers can earn empathy from employees by establishing personal commonalities. Do you both like the same sports team? Are you watching the same Netflix series? Did you grow up in the same town? They should encourage employees to open up with small talk to identify mutual hobbies and interests.
Also, build shared experiences with your staff to form a strong connection. Schedule team outings that will leave an impact; things you’ll be able to reminisce about in the future. By forming common goals, interests and experiences, employers can begin to break down the barriers of intergroup empathy bias and lay the groundwork for mutual empathy.
Be Honest And Direct
Employers cannot successfully establish a culture of empathy without first creating an environment built on trust. To start, leadership should not engage in behaviors that undermine the staff’s trust in them. Gossip is a great example. When a manager gossips to staff about another manager, or when they gossip to staff about ownership, it has a toxic impact on the whole team and can cause the staff to mistrust that manager. If that manager is gossiping about her colleagues and ownership behind their backs, employees will naturally wonder what the manager secretly says about them.
Additionally, lying and similar forms of deception and dishonesty can derail trust, subsequently disrupting previously established empathy. Leaders must understand that this goes beyond refraining from being dishonest; they must eliminate any misguided perceptions of dishonesty, too. That means shutting down rumors or false concerns with transparency and honest communication with staff. That also means having difficult conversations rather than avoiding them, such as explaining why Christmas bonuses were reduced during a down year rather than distributing checks without any context or explanation.
Finally, employers should not patronize employees, nor should they ever condescend to them. If an employee asks an employer or manager about a sensitive business situation that cannot yet be disclosed or discussed, or if an employee wants to have a conversation leadership is not ready to have (such as a promotion or raise), employers and managers cannot be dismissive. Rather, they should respectfully explain to the employee why they are not currently in a position to discuss the matter. In those situations, it is wise for leadership to also promise the employee that they will have that conversation at a specific time in the future.
The days of employers demanding loyalty from employees are over, and they are not coming back anytime soon – that’s a good thing. In this new employment dynamic, employers must strive to build a culture of empathy to retain a happy and motivated workforce. While the change doesn’t happen overnight, the practical steps outlined above can help leaders shift the company culture in the right direction.
Brian Hart is the founder and president of Flackable, an award-winning public relations agency representing financial and professional services brands nationwide. Learn more about Flackable at flackable.com. Follow Brian on Twitter at @BrianHartPR.