I believe it’s not only the first quarter of a new year but also the beginning of a new world as well. Whether you call it the “Great Resignation” or the “Big Quit,” the fact is that the workplace was unstable ground through 2021. Millions of people quit their jobs in 2021, with September alone reaching a record 4.4 million resignations.
Employees who once accepted a “grind” culture are hitting burnout or seeking realignment of their career goals to their mental and physical health. As people’s priorities shift, psychologically safe organizations are attractive to them. The workforce wants to see corporate leaders understand their new priorities, leading with empathy first and business second.
So, what does it mean to lead with empathy? Being an empathetic leader is more than simply being friendly and staying upbeat. It’s taking the time to connect deeply and open appropriate spaces for mutual vulnerability between management and staff. When CEOs and others at the top of an organization adopt a “people first” culture, they create loyalty, communication and retention. Moreover, exercising empathy will help you develop what your organization needs most now: a chief empathy officer.
Here are five practices I’ve set in place within my companies to let people know they matter. These actions are not difficult by any means, but they do require your genuine intention and a little bit of your time. The payoff for investing yourself in your company will be a positive work culture where people want to grow and stay.
Make bonding with your staff a regular event.
Your staff members need to see that you care. Personally, offering words of encouragement aren’t in my nature; it’s a skill I’ve developed. More natural to me is doing acts of service for others. For this reason, to show my staff I care, I established a quarterly event called “Chef Lam Day.” On this day, my wife and I cook a special meal and serve our staff. This allows us to take time to bond with them and show our appreciation. Maybe you’re not a cook, but you can think of other ways to place yourself in a position of humble service to your staff.
Host a monthly lunch.
Food is always a good way to pull people together, so consider hosting a monthly lunch. This is something we’ve started in my company as well, and we’ve termed these monthly lunches “M’unch.” Anyone in the company can sign up to join, but know that there’s only one rule: Talk about anything but work. Spend that time with your employees connecting on family, travel and life. This event should be all about listening to what matters to them.
For example, I learn of my staff’s and family’s personal accomplishments and joys and have some conversations that reveal hardships. This casual monthly activity also keeps my leadership team in tune with our staff’s emotional pulse, thus allowing us to make better boardroom decisions by considering those impacted by our leadership.
Perform random acts of kindness.
I remember reading how former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi surprised people with gratitude. One act of kindness got my attention, though: She wrote letters to the parents of her senior staff, offering gratitude for the person they raised who contributed significantly to her organization. I did this myself with a staff member who was once a student of mine and who I hold in high regard. Not only did my letter move the recipients, but also the exercise made me even more appreciative of this person’s value through the act of writing my gratitude for them on paper.
You can perform simple acts of kindness such as emailing small gift cards, writing a personal note, celebrating people’s birthdays or work anniversaries, or even sharing a link to an article that you know relates to someone’s interests. When you engage in small acts of kindness, others in your organization will follow your lead.
Listen and ask questions.
I find leaders generally like to talk. We have a lot to say. And while the ability to communicate expressively is a desirable leadership trait, the ability to listen is just as valuable. Listening to understand, rather than to craft a response, helps people feel noticed. You might hear statements that indicate someone is feeling overworked or disengaged, especially now as the lines between work and home life are blurred. When you actively listen, you can ask genuine questions to help improve the situation.
People might also share events such as their child’s graduation or family coming in to visit. You can uncover opportunities to share their excitement and perhaps even send a small gift for the occasion. When you establish yourself as a leader who understands people, your staff will become more motivated and empowered to serve your company.
Value different perspectives.
If you want to be viewed as an empathetic leader, you must do all you can to recognize perspectives in the workplace other than your own. Building an environment that honors healthy communication of viewpoints will place you ahead of issues before they start. You don’t have to agree or even like what people share with you, but failing to hear people out will usually lead to their disengagement. You might not change a decision or directive in response to a conversation, but people simply feeling heard will help them know they are valued stakeholders.
No longer viewed as a “soft skill,” empathetic leadership is a skill that is especially valuable for building work cultures where people choose to remain and even refer your organization to job seekers. When you exercise empathy, you will cultivate a workforce that trusts your decisions, demonstrates high morale through tough times and feels empowered to help your business move toward its goals.