Leading with practical empathy: What skills do your managers need to thrive in 2024?

'Organizations that enable leaders to practice empathy remove the conflict leaders often feel between managing business requirements and their natural desire to help people'

Leading with practical empathy: What skills do your managers need to thrive in 2024?

In times of change and uncertainty, the importance of leading with empathy cannot be understated. But how confidently can leaders say that they’re truly fostering a compassionate culture?

Just 59% of employees said they feel their leaders' expressions of empathy are followed by meaningful action, according to O.C Tanner’s 2024 Global Culture Report, meaning that a large portion of people aren’t convinced that their managers actually care about them.

So what can leaders do to change the narrative? Or, more importantly, what strategies can leaders implement to ensure their empathetic gestures translate into tangible support?

Empowering leaders to act with empathy

“During this time of change and transition, leaders are experiencing the highest levels of empathy fatigue: a state of pure exhaustion caused by providing boundless emotional support to others,” explains Meghan Stettler, director of the O.C. Tanner Institute.

“Despite our best intentions of calling on leaders to be more empathetic, the reality is, there isn’t a clear definition or framework to help leaders know how to practice empathy in the workplace. And so many are left feeling emotionally drained and ill-equipped to solve their people’s challenges without the knowledge, training, and resources to do so.”

When organizations educate and empower leaders to act with empathy, the odds of fulfillment increase by a staggering 894%, according to the O.C. Tanner report. However, as Stettler tells HRD, this means going beyond connecting emotionally to actually building a practice of care that’s focused on individual needs.

“While our research identifies six active components of practical empathy, essentially, organizations need to equip leaders with the ability to listen, understand, and embrace their peoples’ perspectives, take supportive action, and respect boundaries,” adds Stettler.

In terms of respecting boundaries, not every employee is going to feel comfortable being vulnerable with their leader, she says, “but every leader needs to learn how to create a safe environment and be given the language and guidelines to know when to reach out to an HR expert or other support services as applicable.

“Organizations that create policies and programs that enable leaders to practice empathy remove the conflict leaders often feel between managing business requirements and their natural desire to help people — it assures leaders that empathy is a top priority in the workplace and provides them with the tools to act while safeguarding their own burnout.”

Adopting a people-centric approach

And it’s not just employees who need that extra pat on the back. The report also found that that only 27% of leaders feel strongly prepared to help their people navigate change – something which will be a key driver of success in 2024.

“Once again, I will turn to organizations to better their approach,” says Stettler. “Companies must abandon the traditional, top-down, process-oriented change management practices of the past where senior leaders make all the decisions and rely on mid-level and frontline leaders to execute those decisions. When that happens, managers become the proverbial “shock absorbers’ of the organization — those responsible for the impact of the decisions but removed from the conversations behind those changes.”

For Stettler, this manifests in adopting a much more people-centered approach to make certain that leaders are intentionally informed and equipped to manage and adopt to the unknown. And, as the data shows, when leaders have the abilities manage change effectively, their personal risk of burnout diminishes by 73%.

“To empower leaders, organizations must give them as much information and context about the change as possible, as well as time to absorb the news,” she says. “Then, work to decentralize the change management process to include feedback, organic solutions, and the opportunity to better understand the support leaders and employees will need to effectively carry out that change successfully.

“WWhen leaders feel prepared to both lead and manage change, it increases their sense of competency by 8x--that’s a far better statistic than 27%.”

Building resilience in leadership

When it comes to instigating real change here, employees can be your biggest champions. To foster a culture of positivity, employees need to be involved from the off. And this begins with creating a safe space.

It begins by creating a healthy culture of practical empathy and nimble resilience — where change isn’t something to be feared, but embraced as an everyday opportunity to innovate, evolve, and improve,” says Stettler. “When employees are encouraged to proactively share their feedback and ideas in big and little ways, and leadership practices empathy in understanding their perspectives, taking supportive action, and respecting boundaries — in this case, by providing the support and autonomy to execute on feedback and ideas successfully — it creates an atmosphere of trust and belonging in the spirit continuous improvement.”

To do this successfully, she recommends investing in employee surveys, focus groups and town halls – safe places where employees feel they can speak their mind and be listened to. After all, there’s little point in asking for people’s opinions only to disregard them.

“It’s important to remember that listening is more than just asking for feedback — it’s acting on what you’re hearing, communicating the results, and broadcasting the changes widely,” says Stettler. “Those additional steps are crucial, because if employees never know how their voices are heard, valued, and integrated, they are far less likely to share their opinions going forward because, in fact, speaking up is a risk employees decide to take every single time.

“That’s why it’s fundamental that leaders practice empathy across their formal and informal exchanges with employees — it builds a daily experience that’s psychologically safe for them to express their thoughts and know they will be heard and addressed in a respectful, trustworthy manner.”

In order to thrive within those exchanges, Stettler offers up some guidelines to consider:

  • Focus on the person, including their needs, challenges, and potential.
  • Seek understanding on policies, programs, and their daily experiences (both positive and negative).
  • Listen to learn new insights, not just to demonstrate concern.
  • Embrace perspectives by being open and accepting of different viewpoints and believing what you hear.
  • Take supportive action to address employees’ needs or insights. 
  • Respect boundaries by having other support resources in place so employees get what they need, and leaders don’t burn out.

“Creating a culture of practical empathy amid change will ensure that employees’ voices are not only heard, but valued and integrated in building a more nimble, connected, and fulfilling culture for all,” adds Stettler.

Recent articles & video

Best practice for handling fixed-term agreements in New Zealand

Former dental clinic worker sentenced to community detention for fraud

Court of Appeal reverses 'homeworker' ruling on Fleming, Humphreys

Recap: Winners of the 2024 HRD Awards New Zealand

Most Read Articles

E Tū takes TVNZ to ERA for alleged non-compliance on consultation process

HR leaders gather for industry event of the year

Blenheim worker wins $16,000 in damages over unjust dismissal claim