Caring in a corporate world: The power of empathetic leadership

  • Date posted

    Feb 21, 2022

  • Guest post by

    Christy Smith, Vice President of People and Culture

I was interviewing a new employee when he told me about the tragic death of his grandfather. He was working for another company when he went to his manager with a broken heart and a request. He needed some time to grieve the loss. His manager’s response? Sure, take all the time you need for the funeral—as long as you’re back for a conference call by 6:00 p.m.

In that moment, the manager sent a very clear message to a grieving employee: Business matters more than the needs of his people. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As leaders, nothing matters more than the health and wellbeing of our employees.

The past two years have been a crash course in grief. Whether they're reeling from the death of a loved one or struggling to perform under high levels of stress, employees have felt the sting of this pandemic. Not only that, but this pandemic has forced people to re-evaluate how they’re spending their time and what’s really important. They’re getting more selective about what they’re doing and who they’re working for. They’re not asking for, but rather expecting an understanding and flexible workplace—a great place to work. That’s why it’s more important than ever to lead with empathy.

In this article, we’ll explore how to build a people-centric culture where employees are inspired to stick around, produce their best work, and become active advocates for their company.

Go beyond DEI to create a culture of belonging

It’s important that your employees know you appreciate them for who they are—not who you think they should be. This creates a feeling of belonging which, according to a recent BetterUp1 survey, can lead to a . . .


increase in job performance


reduction in turnover risk


decrease in employee sick days

Creating a workplace where employees belong without having to fit in is essential to building an inclusive and empathetic company culture. Leaders can create this sense of belonging by creating an environment where people are free to bring their whole, unique selves to work. Where they can feel like they don’t have to change who they are to be heard, appreciated, and understood. This means celebrating what makes each employee different, because those unique strengths and backgrounds only serve to strengthen the entire company.

When diversity, equity, and inclusion thrive, people feel their unique perspectives and lived experiences are recognized, accepted, and embraced. In other words, they feel like they belong.

So, how do you measure your employees’ sense of acceptance in the workplace? Great Places to Work2 recommends focusing on how your team feels about certain factors that contribute to their sense of belonging. This includes whether employees feel they can bring their full selves to work, whether they feel emotionally safe at work, and if they believe that their managers show an interest in them as people, not just employees.

Using tools like our quick Pulse Surveys, you can collect data that measures how your employees feel when it comes to belonging at work. With that knowledge, you can create unique, relevant, and engaging solutions with the power to make a real impact on the lives of your employees.

Consider employee wellbeing during every decision

In a time of record-breaking labor shortages and The Great Resignation, companies can't afford to push employee wellbeing to the side. According to the Society of Human Resource Professionals (SHRM), talent acquisition, employee engagement, and retention remain top priorities—and challenges—for today’s HR leaders.3 In addition, HR Research Institute found that 64% of HR professionals agree mental health is a top priority. This indicates that leaders should begin to view mental health as an integral part of their employees’ holistic wellbeing.4

So how do you build a company culture with employee wellbeing engrained in the foundation? Show your people empathy and care in every moment that you can. A meaningful wellbeing program can help you get there, but it must be built with a diverse employee population in mind. That means providing solutions that work together to support each person’s unique needs across all 8 Pillars of Wellbeing:

  • Balance
  • Financial
  • Nutrition
  • Purpose
  • Community
  • Mindfulness
  • Physical
  • Social

This approach to employee wellbeing helps you provide resources designed to support growth in all the parts of life that make people feel healthy, happy, and whole—so employees can find specific resources designed for their personal journey.

Offering employees choices in solutions to care for their whole wellbeing sends a powerful message. It tells them that your primary concern is their wellbeing—that you know they don't have to stick around, but if they do, you will care about them as a person first.

Build a culture of flexibility and empowerment

Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, but during a time when people are leaving their companies in droves, it’s never been more important. As employees continue to increase calls for flexibility and better work-life balance, it’s up to leaders to ditch the corporate veil, reveal their humanity, have empathy, and listen. This approach changes our mindset from, “that won't work” to “how can we make this work for this person?” That’s where you can help.

The pandemic defied every management and organizational system, pushing everyone to their limits, until a transition toward agile, ever-evolving methods began to emerge… Perhaps the most telling realization was that the key to survival in any catastrophe is empathy.

By using a people centric approach, you can balance the needs of your business with the needs of your employees and deliver huge dividends in retention, productivity, and engagement. The key is to create a culture of belonging where you don't expect employees to conform to company-centric policy. Instead, employees can meet you in the middle. This creates new opportunities for them to feel empowered and take control of their own lives.

Allowing mutually beneficial flexibility in how, where, and when people work demonstrates that your primary concern is their wellbeing. They are empowered to define their work in a manner that supports the needs of their family and their own wellbeing. And while work-from-home or hybrid office policies are great methods for accomplishing these goals, they’re not the only way. Generous PTO policies, flextime, and non-traditional work hours are also great solutions to help employees gain more flexibility and achieve company goals.

By encouraging empathy and flexibility in the workplace, you have the power to create more balance for your employees and substantial business results. With more empathetic leaders, you can build a culture based on love, kindness, understanding, and compassion. So, if a grieving employee ever comes to you with their heart in their hands, you can respond with a clear message: Our primary concern is your wellbeing.

Looking for more guidance on empathetic leadership? Check out these three ways you can help support your employees’ mental health year-round.

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