Struggling to retain top talent? Try corporate empathy

two hands holding a paper heart.
Improving talent retention can yield better business results.
Image: Unsplash.
  • The Great Resignation has left business leaders looking for new ways to attract and retain talent.
  • Talent turnover is expensive for businesses already struggling to recover post-pandemic.
  • Building a culture of corporate empathy could be one part of the solution.

Today’s empowered employees have taken the driver’s seat. They’ve got their foot on the throttle, both hands on the wheel, and are enjoying the ride for all it’s worth. According to research on global workers, 41% of the workforce are considering changing jobs this year.

In a post-pandemic world with low barriers to job migration, today’s leaders would do well to practice something that may not have occurred to them: corporate empathy. The concept is closely related to emotional intelligence: the ability to recognize, reason with, and regulate emotions, both in oneself and in others. Dr. Jochen Menges, Professor of Human Resource Management and Leadership and Director of the Center for Leadership in the Future of Work at the University of Zurich, says, “If leaders are able to read and regulate their own and their team’s emotions, they can better help people navigate uncertainty and inspire people to seize opportunities.”

The great re-evaluation: why we need a balanced approach

The factors leading to the “Great Resignation” are well understood. Leaders have pivoted to the question of how to excel in this environment – how to retain their best workers and attract new ones who will help them thrive. Understandably, they view pay increases as one of their primary tools. The Resetting Normal study asked 15,000 workers about their priorities in 2022, and while salary is not unimportant, both culture and wellbeing issues ranked higher for 80% of workers.

Leaders should consider two truths: first, talent turnover is an expensive problem and therefore must be solved. Second, it’s a problem that can be solved. For the most part, employees leave for reasons that are within the control of employers: culture, work environment, growth opportunities, and leadership disconnect. The tools are there to prevent the Great Resignation.

Before we explore one of the underutilized tools, a word about the traditional ones. While corporate empathy and culture issues are more important than ever, leaders cannot ignore other factors that make a workplace great. The work itself must be productive, the compensation fair. Social protections must be in place. Employees should have opportunities for personal development as well as the freedom to express their concerns, organize, and participate in decisions that affect them. Finally, equality of opportunity and treatment are mandatory.

Improving talent retention and producing better results

Of course, empathy is making a consistent effort to understand how others feel – putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. The concept is deeply ingrained in our personal lives, but scaling it to global organizations with hundreds or thousands of associates is challenging.

The empathetic organization embraces a culture, starting in the C-suite, that practices and values empathy. That means developing emotional intelligence at the enterprise level, and genuinely listening to and sympathizing with workers’ feelings. Empathy comes naturally to humans. It’s the right thing to do and it also brings business benefits. When employees feel heard, understood and cared for, they work harder, take more risks, and help others succeed. This in turn improves talent retention.

Corporate empathy is a proven key to boosting workforce engagement and talent retention, which in turn produce better business results.

—Alain Dehaze.

If corporate empathy is appropriate, natural, and beneficial, why is it often lacking? The answer pulls us back to the 20th century, a hierarchical time of stiff upper lips and bottled-up feelings. “Never complain, never explain” went the famed maxim of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. To this day, unfortunately, many leaders fear they will lose respect if they show emotions and empathy in a business context.

We must put to rest this obsolete view. Corporate empathy demonstrates the strength of both the individual and the organization. Leaders with empathy are better at connecting with and supporting their employees, ultimately leading to better results. Corporate empathy is a proven key to boosting workforce engagement and talent retention, which in turn produce better business results. What could be stronger than that?

Make no mistake – some organizations are gaining competitive advantage through empathy, according to Dr. Menges, “These companies care for their employees’ emotions, they help employees develop their emotional intelligence, and they embed these principles into the entire organizational system both formally (through HR processes, for example) and informally (through organizational culture).”

Taking steps to reboot corporate culture

Leaders whose organizations lack empathy may wonder how to change the culture. I wish I could say it’s easy, but it requires focused, consistent effort that starts at the very top.

Keeping in mind that empathy by its very nature involves listening to others, many leaders have begun retention campaigns with “stay interviews.” Where the notorious exit interview asks employees why they’re leaving, a stay interview asks why they stick around. What motivates them? What improvements would they like to see? How would they like their career to progress?

Another vital component of corporate empathy is learning about, sympathizing with, and responding to employees’ needs. Generational change has shifted priorities, and leaders who fail to respond will lose top talent. In one recent study, 72% of Gen Z employees called it important that their manager “makes time to develop and maintain relationships,” and 64% said it’s important that managers “openly share unique aspects of themselves with the team.” So much for never complain, never explain. A related message from younger workers is that building a more diverse and inclusive workplace is an absolute must.

Responses to worker needs take many forms. During COVID-19 lockdowns, many workers adopted pets and were loath to leave them when office work resumed. Forward-looking leaders have responded with more liberal (yet well-defined) policies allowing dogs and cats in the workplace, deeming such policies an easy way to keep top talent happy. However, the key to corporate empathy, is to listen rather than assume what workers want. Offering perks without understanding employee needs, can be a “hit-and-miss” for talent retention.

Empathy is deeply ingrained in our souls. Now it’s time for leaders to inject it into the corporate soul. As Dr. Menges eloquently puts it, corporate empathy and emotional intelligence are vital and will grow even more so, “As ever more intelligent machines take on what we used to do with our heads and hands, people will increasingly rely on what they are able to do with their hearts.”

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