If you want to retain and attract top talent, you need your people to feel valued by your business. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds: just be empathetic. In an era where many employees feel isolated by back-to-office mandates and rising costs of living, organizations that are leading with empathy give workers the human touch they need to reconnect.  

Why is Empathy Important? 

While it may feel counter-intuitive in a hard-lined business environment, the reality is that organizations that show high levels of empathy excel at employee retention, job performance, positive team climate and effective leadership. In short, it pays to have a bit of heart–you’ll get strong staff loyalty in return. 

Empathy is a form of emotional intelligence that helps us gather information about other people, respond to their needs and ultimately build better relationships. In a business sense, it means actively listening, supporting teams and individuals, being flexible and approachable, and promoting transparency. It involves compassion, but not to the detriment of the organization’s goals. 

“When I think about empathy in leadership, I think of someone that allows themselves to feel what their team may be thinking or feeling,” says Germayne Cade, Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry. “It’s understanding the geopolitical backdrop, that life exists outside of work and meeting each person where they are within the organization or team.” 

Despite empathy’s critical importance, in a recent survey of 3,000 HR professionals, a third felt it was lacking at the top. “After a difficult past few years with the pandemic, the feeling now is ‘OK that’s done, now let’s get on with it.’ But employees might feel differently,” notes Cade. That’s why Korn Ferry named ‘resurgence of empathy’ as one of the top Talent Acquisition Trends of 2024

So how can businesses, CHROs and CEOs cultivate a culture of empathy while also keeping business goals aligned? The answer involves both a ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approach. 

Lead with Empathy from Above 

Your executive leadership team is the driving force behind forging an empathetic company culture. Here’s how you can promote the agenda from above. 

Prioritize the Narrative 

First off, CHROs must be active in the process. “HR must have a seat at the table and not just be an order taker,” says Cade. “They need to provide the rationale of adopting an empathetic culture and help the CEO and CFO drive that culture through the organization.” This empathetic vision must be shared ‘on repeat’. The more it’s talked about within the company, the more it’ll be valued. 

When it comes to actually building a culture, training is key. Leaders at every level of the business need to be given the right tools to level up their knowledge in empathy—for example, via seminars on active listening.   

Utilize the CEO 

CEOs, of course, have a unique and powerful role to play: that of the empathetic leader. The vision for the entire organization cascades from them, and if they’re not on board it won’t stick. 

“CEOs must communicate authentically, in a way that feels genuine and not saccharine,” says Cade. “They must surround themselves with individuals who can help them skill up in this area as necessary. Of course, some CEOs are just naturally dynamic and empathetic—you just want to work for that person and be part of that organization.” 

As noted in the Korn Ferry EI Report, leaders with high emotional and social intelligence levels have a bigger impact. Employees know what is expected of them, feeling responsible for their jobs and also rewarded when they have succeeded. Korn Ferry’s webinar on talent acquisition trends positions Microsoft’s Satya Nadella as an example of a CEO that does this well. 

Rationalize, Rationalize 

Empathetic leadership doesn’t mean tough decisions don’t get made—but when they do, it gives employees a rationale they can anchor onto.  

“Why is the CEO making that decision?” continues Cade. “Give employees something they can understand. In the case of return-to-office mandates, it’s not about maximizing real estate, which is not a tangible thing. In the case of a workforce readjustment, it’s understanding how job loss will impact an individual while delivering that news.” Being transparent is crucial: explain that this is a necessary business decision, and hasn’t come from a place of enjoyment. 

To keep empathy and business objectives in harmony, Cade suggests businesses conduct regular analyses of pros and cons. Always ensure that you’re erring on the side of making sound business decisions that advance the organization and team.

Leadership & Professional Development

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Foster Empathy from Below 

An empathetic company culture is not a one-way street—if it’s going to take root, it must be driven from the ground up, too. 

Leverage Gen Z 

Gen Z is already a natural source of empathy in the workplace. With different motivations from previous generations, they are highly connected to ESG and choose to join organizations based on their values. Gen Z’s presence in the workforce can help drive a type of engagement climate throughout an organization that doesn’t originate solely from the top.

“Gen Z workers aren’t interested in hypergrowth—there isn’t an association of power/good. They care more about the purpose and the ‘how’ part of our business strategy. So, if tomorrow’s leaders aren’t aligned with the current leaders’ ‘beat the competition’ attitude, then what happens? We must consider all stakeholders, not just shareholders.”
~ CHRO, Global Consumer Goods Business

Let Mistakes Happen

Companies with a culture that promotes learning, who encourage staff to take calculated risks—even when they fail—foster empathy at every level. Even when things don’t work out, employees feel supported.

And, just as importantly, any mistakes that are made can lead to growth. As Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison notes, when you’re in a supportive environment and you fail fast, you learn faster. That in turn leads to critical development.

Think Sideways

It’s crucial to foster what Cade calls ‘sideways empathy’. Some companies have a divisive, combative and bureaucratic culture, and employees within these environments might naturally be less empathetic. “Engagement in these scenarios is more self-centered than collective,” Cade notes. “It’s a toxic environment. Do you really want an organization of individuals, who are disruptive in a negative sense?”

Foster collective understanding at all levels of the business and you’ll see success. Listening tools such as staff surveyscan help provide a barometer as to how employees feel about interacting with their colleagues, as well as with the wider leadership team.  

Drive Your Empathy-led Business Agenda 

Creating an empathetic company isn’t a checkbox exercise. Empathy needs to be deeply embedded in a company’s DNA, leadership style and culture.

Our Leadership and Professional Development team knows how to foster an empathetic leadership style and environment in your business. Get in touch and benefit from their advice today.