From geopolitical disruption and corporate downsizing to a slowing economy, leaders today have no lack of disruption to manage. In this state of constant change every decision is quickly becoming transformational in nature. To succeed, leaders must maintain a laser focus on the emotional and human dimensions of work.
Our second Empathy in Business report highlights that empathy in the workplace drives psychological safety and fosters an experiential culture that allows for experimental failure to generate learning and new ideas. Tellingly, US talent believe that mutual empathy between leaders and employees creates a safe, agile culture that can increase efficiency, creativity, job satisfaction, idea sharing and innovation.
Time and time again we have found that business transformation success is rooted in human emotions, with empathy at the core. As the increasing pace of market disruption is forcing companies to transform faster and more frequently, it is clear that leaders and organizations today must lean into human emotions to succeed at all six drivers that lead to transformation success.
Time and time again we have found that business transformation success is rooted in human emotions, with empathy at the core.
However, in many cases, these same workers see corporate attempts to foster such understanding to be disingenuous or inconsistent – and thus ineffective. Leadership demonstrating empathy in the workplace, not merely preaching it, will resonate with employees far more effectively.
Recent years taught us that leading with empathy is a soft and powerful trait that helps empower employers and employees to collaborate better, and ultimately create a culture of accountability and transformation.
EY Americas Consulting Vice Chair
Addressing the authenticity gap
As important as genuine empathy is to corporate culture and business results, too often the concept is a mere talking point in town hall meetings - not a sincere feeling fostered and shared among colleagues. Half of employees surveyed (52%) perceive corporate attempts at empathy to be inauthentic (up from 46% in 2021). What’s more, employees increasingly report a lack of follow-through when it comes to company promises.
More than half of employees surveyed perceive corporate attempts at empathy to be inauthentic, up from 46% in last year’s report.
What's more +#Hide the data -
Employees increasingly report a lack of follow-through when it comes to company promises.
Organizations often have the best intentions: leaders may share lofty ideas on how to improve corporate culture but the actual experience day-to-day is harsher on the front lines. Fantasy and reality collide, stirring up confusion.
This breakdown in trust happens when workers see empathy as a program being rolled out, and not a fundamental shift in behavior change from the CEO on down. To really make a change, organizations need to reward empathy as a management style — as much as productivity and profitability. Empathy must be embedded into every employee experience.
How respondents directly defined “empathy in the workplace”
Empathy in action
As organizations implement post-pandemic return-to-office (RTO) plans, empathy is often left out of the conversation.
Splashing headlines, forced RTO edicts that don’t take into account employees’ transformed personal lives are creating significant upheaval. In fact, during the two years of the pandemic, lives did change for many. Some added a pet to their family or expanded with the addition of a child. In some cases, individuals may have moved across the nation to be closer to family or for other reasons.
Companies’ RTO plans must appreciate those changing dynamics. Conversely, an empathetic leadership approach considers all, their lived and varied experiences and current needs, including:
Similarly, emotions are just as important as rational decisions in the context of M&A, a classic example of business transformation. While historically corporate leaders have focused on financial valuations, our research suggests that the people strategy is just as important for success — if not more so.
Successful integrations require empathetic leaders who recognize and appreciate how their team members differ from one another, be it job function and location or learning styles. Should you communicate your M&A digitally or via in-person town halls? Should you present the information visually or verbally? Empathetic change management includes a concerted effort to bring everyone and their viewpoints and needs along with you.
While HR or communications might set the strategy, the entire C-Suite must buy into the employee communication plan. If not communicated appropriately, people will feel disconnected from the mission and feel lost amid the shuffle.
Some refreshing good news
The 2023 report offers good news, too. Many people feel more bullish about work than at the height of the pandemic.
Of the women surveyed, 76% agree that there are more opportunities for them to grow within their company, a 12 percentage point increase from the last report (64%). Of all survey respondents, 84% say they feel proud of the organization where they work, compared with only 78% in the previous report.
New EY US Consulting study: employees overwhelmingly expect empathy in the workplace, but many say it feels disingenuous.
Taken all together, these survey results demonstrate that most U.S. workers take pride in their individual contributions. But they’re craving authentic empathy from their managers and senior leadership to breed creativity and innovation.
5 ways to create authentic empathy
Start by transforming yourself as the leader
Leading with empathy has to be mirrored from the top down. Emotional transformation is a perpetual journey. Constantly work on yourself to deepen your self-awareness so that you can manage your emotions and help your workforce navigate their emotions is paramount.
Demonstrate courage, curiosity and care
Have the courage to challenge the status quo, the curiosity to consider the situation from multiple perspectives, and the care to listen and understand the fear and anxiety that the transformation might reveal.
Don’t wait for the “speak up”
Proactively create psychological safety by not just encouraging people to speak up but also by directly asking them and creating opportunities for them to share their point of view. Listen intently instead of planning what you will say next; focus on the other person. Give space and don’t interrupt. Don’t bring the conversation back to your needs.
Collaborate on a compelling “why"
Create a movement, helping leaders and teams find purpose. Then, galvanize the movement by fostering two-way dialogue that reinforces the shared belief.
Understand the emotional aspect of change
Develop an understanding about the emotional toll brought on by change and transformation. Learn about emotional agility and how to improve it in times of change.