The Empathy Renaissance: Passing Fad or Here to Stay?

If you don't want high attrition or the best recruits turning you down to work for your competitor, you need to go beyond optics or a one-time hit and create a sustainable empathetic culture.

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As we've struggled through the pandemic and all the upheaval it has caused in our personal and professional lives, there has indeed been a silver lining. No, I'm not being a Pollyanna about this, but hear me out. Empathy at work is being talked about openly. Leaders recognize that culture is not just the free lunches you provide, but how you treat your people. Combatting the Great Resignation requires us to bring humanity back to the workplace and see, hear and value each other.

These past 18 months, I've been lucky enough to talk to countless leaders on my podcast, The Empathy Edge. CEOs. Marketing leaders. Social entrepreneurs. DEI experts. Communication and workplace experts. And they all echo what research is telling us: Empathy is the most in-demand leadership skill of the 21st century, especially in times of crisis.

The pandemic has cracked open conversations about mental health and flexible work environments. Calls for racial and social justice have accelerated diversity, equity and inclusion efforts beyond merely social media memes — into real corporate action. It's as if the blinders have been removed and we finally acknowledge that the people who power our workforces are not robots. They are complex, diverse, messy human beings and we need to start treating them as such.

When I started gathering data to make the business case for empathy for my 2019 book, The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine For Success, I was met with skepticism. Literary agents would ask, "Is this book a business book or a self-help book?" They couldn't figure out how it fit into the landscape of profitability or business performance.

Now? People get it.

Anecdotally, I see more business-related posts on LinkedIn tying empathy and compassion to successful leadership and organizational success. Businesses are asking me to speak to their employees and customers about how to strengthen empathy — and the benefits they can achieve when they do. Empathy experts around the world are in demand and being sought out by the C-suite and beyond. We're experiencing an empathy renaissance.

But why? And is it just a passing fad based on current circumstances or here to stay? Here are three reasons why I believe empathy in the workplace will be with us for the long haul and what this means to you as a leader.

1. Incoming Talent Demands an Empathetic Culture

Now that I've been researching empathy as a competitive advantage and speaking about it for years, I can say one thing with confidence: Workers have seen the light and won't go back to suffering in cultures where they are not seen, heard or valued anymore. Gen Z, our incoming talent, was never going to settle for the old paradigms. They demand workplaces where they can bring their whole selves. They will offer more innovation, higher performance and strong loyalty — but only if the culture values diversity, humanity and empathy.

Audit your organization from top to bottom. What are your rewards structures, policies and expectations? Are you simply giving lip service to empathy or do you walk your talk? Ensure you have empathy — or whatever term empathy takes in your organization. Some folks call it "service" or "belonging" — tied to performance evaluations and bonuses. Hire for more than just what is on the résumé and ask deeper questions to assess emotional intelligence. Create public recognition and rewards that show employees that empathy is the way success happens at your organization.

2. It's an Employee Market

From unionized labor to The Great Resignation, employees of all generations are demanding more respect and better working conditions. If you don't want high attrition or the best recruits turning you down to work for your competitor, you need to go beyond optics or a one-time hit and create a sustainable empathetic culture.

Conduct an industry benchmark study and ensure you are paying your people fairly. Internally, assess salary levels and ensure equity. Create constant feedback loops between management and employees on what is really going on for them. In my experience, many employees view benefits such as mental health leave, flex time and paid family leave as empathetic. Do you have these in place for the long-term? And does your leadership encourage people to take advantage of them — or is the reality that managers send an unspoken signal that it's not OK to actually use these benefits?

3. Empathy Is a Required Skill to Adapt to Rapid Change

The pace of change has no signs of slowing down. Therefore, those interpersonal skills to collaborate, empathize and communicate will be more vital than ever. Current challenges require a team effort — they are not a solo sport anymore. Those leaders who can quickly foster engagement will win. Leaders are seeking out opportunities to sharpen these skills so they remain marketable and effective.

If your organization is not providing development opportunities for leaders and aspiring leaders to build this skill for themselves, they will jump ship to find it elsewhere. Ensure your leadership development training offers opportunities to strengthen empathy and emotional intelligence. For seasoned leaders, this may mean a big mental shift in how they have always operated and found success in the past. Be supportive and empathetic with them as they make this transition! Arm your aspiring leaders with this skill set now so they don't develop bad habits later on. And publicly acknowledge mastering this skill just as much as you do celebrating revenue goals or KPIs.

If you as a leader still believe this is a trend that will "pass," good luck to you and your organization's survival.

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