Practical Empathy: Beyond listening or feeling is a power focused on individuals’ needs, grounded in understanding, and backed by action.Practical Empathy: Beyond listening or feeling is a power focused on individuals’ needs, grounded in understanding, and backed by action.Practical Empathy: Beyond listening or feeling is a power focused on individuals’ needs, grounded in understanding, and backed by action.

PERSPECTIVE

Empathy is a well-traveled and familiar virtue, but that hasn’t helped it translate to the workplace. Its complexity and less-than-universal applications have often led to confusion, frustration, and even fatigue in leaders. Fortunately, our research this year uncovered a handful of keys that make empathy more potent, less painful, and, in a single word, practical. Practical empathy hinges on identifying, understanding, and actively meeting employee needs. Not only does it increase employees’ sense of belonging and connection, it improves business outcomes like attracting and retaining talent. As a close companion of appreciation, there are few better tools for tackling a range of culture challenges.

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INTRODUCTION

In the first quarter of 2023, tens of thousands of employees at technology companies worldwide lost their jobs. Some of the organizations conducted layoffs in person, addressing people’s emotions and needs, taking responsibility for the circumstances or the decision, and helping employees extend their benefits and find new positions. Other organizations, however, made headlines for communicating terminations via mass emails or Zoom meetings, or by simply shutting down employees’ system access and keycards. The less gracious farewells were notable for several reasons, but one is that, for many years, these companies preached a gospel of empathy.

In a survey of 150 CEOs by Harvard Business Review, 80% said empathy was a key to success.1

Such leaders have been asking and testing big questions like: How do you build an empathetic culture? Is empathy an inherent trait, or is it a skill to learn and develop? And, not least of all, how does empathy lead to greater business results?

While most leaders would agree empathy is a valuable part of the employee experience, there is, unfortunately, little consensus on how to apply it. This is because empathy, by itself, is merely a shared feeling. We may seek to understand and care about what another person is experiencing, but that is often not enough to resolve an issue or make a meaningful difference. According to our research, for empathy to be effective at work, it needs a supporting action.

Traditional models of empathy don’t meet employee needs in either an actionable or sustainable way. Both leaders and employees are frequently left frustrated by empathy initiatives that are perceived,
at best, as “warm and fuzzy” programs with little usefulness. And nearly half (47%) of employees report a lack of follow-through on company promises.2

A people-centered, practical approach to empathy—one that’s grounded in understanding and supported by action—will decrease burnout among leaders and help employees find greater belonging, fulfillment, and connection.


“In order for businesses to successfully transform, they must put humans at the center with empathetic leadership to create transparency and provide employees with psychological safety. Empathy is a powerful force that must be embedded organically into every aspect of an organization, otherwise the inconsistency has a dramatic impact on the overall culture and authenticity of an organization.”
—Kim Billeter, Americas People Advisory Services Leader, EY

Practical Empathy Is Empathy in Action

Beyond the traditional definition of empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another—practical empathy is a practice of care. It includes all the same elements but focuses on understanding another’s needs and then moves to act on their behalf. Consequently, it also requires guidelines for leaders to provide employees with other resources if issues exceed the leader’s scope of influence.

Our research finds there are six active components to practical empathy in the workplace, at both the leadership and organizational level:

Figure 3. Practical Empathy Index
The six components of practical empathy in the workplace.

Focus on the person. Prioritize the individual’s needs, challenges, and potential.

Seek understanding. Solicit input and feedback on policies, programs, and their day-to-day employee experiences (both negative and positive).

Listen to learn. Actively listen to the person; don’t just demonstrate concern.

Embrace perspectives. Remain open and accepting of different viewpoints.

Take supportive action. Go beyond simply caring and take action on their behalf.

Respect boundaries. Have support resources in place for consistency and so leaders don’t have to act as comprehensive support systems.

The lynchpin of practical empathy is the action taken as a result of listening, understanding, and having genuine concern for the person. For the empathy to be effective, it must include supportive action. This could be offering greater flexibility in a job, giving employees a stronger voice or more autonomy, connecting them with additional resources, or just some helpful problem-solving. Practical empathy does not always entail an immediate solution, but it must both acknowledge and address the problem.

Unfortunately, we found only 59% of employees feel their leaders’ expressions of empathy are accompanied by meaningful action and support, and only 58% of organizations take action to improve after receiving employee feedback. Yet when leaders and organizations do act, employees are much more likely to feel engaged and fulfilled, as the following table outlines.

A table showing that when both leaders and organizations adopt practical empathy as a guiding practice, the impact on the employee experience is profound.

When both leaders and organizations adopt practical empathy as a guiding practice, the impact on the employee experience is profound.

Organizations that create policies and programs that enable the practice of empathy remove the burden from leaders who feel conflicted between the business requirements of the organization and the natural desire to help their people. They also remove ambiguity and any stigma associated with empathy in the workplace. Conversely, organizations that don’t make it easier to practice empathy will contribute to leadership stress and burnout.


“Empathy is a muscle, so it needs to be exercised.”
—Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft

The Importance of Understanding—With Boundaries

Employees want to feel understood, appreciated, and valued as individuals. When leaders take the time to understand an employee’s role, career aspirations, and perspectives, there is:

A table showing that when leaders take the time to understand an employee’s role, career aspirations, and perspectives, there is a significant impact on employees across several cultural metrics.


Employees also picture themselves staying 2.5 years longer at their organization when their leader is empathetic. Leaders are in a good position to build practical empathy if they’ve worked in an employee’s role before or if they currently work closely with their people. But even if leaders don’t have the same experience or situation as an employee, the acts of listening, asking for feedback, and understanding can still build strong, meaningful connections.

The most critical foundation for practical empathy is understanding, regardless of how new or seasoned the leader. In an experiment, we determine that leaders hired externally can be perceived as more empathetic than those promoted internally if they are transparent about their lack of shared experience and actively seek to understand the needs of their employees.

That said, boundaries are key to sustaining practical empathy. Without boundaries in place, empathy can be emotionally draining for leaders and interfere with work because leaders (in most organizations) are not behavioral health professionals. To prevent overtaxing them, organizations must help leaders balance their own mental health and wellbeing with the needs of their employees.3

It’s entirely possible for leaders to be supportive and still maintain appropriate boundaries if the organization provides additional outside resources and support systems, such as mental health services, family and career counseling, and childcare. Furthermore, these systems and resources do not negatively impact employees’ perceptions of leaders. Our research shows employees are still 107% more likely to trust their leader and 127% more likely to feel a strong connection with their leader when boundaries exist.

One last note about the role of empathy in leadership: Modern leaders (those who mentor, advocate, connect, and inspire their people rather than control and gatekeep) embrace empathy and, not surprisingly, contribute to better overall cultural and business outcomes.4 When employees perceive their leader as empathetic, the odds of also being perceived as a modern leader increase 3x. This leads to an 8.5x higher likelihood of employees being highly engaged.


“There’s something to be said about a leader that gets right in the trenches with you, especially when you’re facing a challenge.”
—Focus Group Participant, Sales Associate

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Recommendations

To build a people-centered culture, organizations must cultivate practical empathy, work to understand their people, and enable leaders to take action.

1.  Champion practical empathy

In many organizations, levels of empathy differ by leader and personality. But practical empathy is a practice, not a trait, that organizations can foster and promote.

Establish policies and programs around empathy that allow leaders to act, but also set boundaries. Equip leaders with tools to help them have conversations and understand their employees’ perspectives, opinions, and struggles. (One-to-one meetings are ideal to facilitate these conversations.) Then clearly define where the leader’s responsibility ends and other resources for employees begin.

Supporting leaders’ wellbeing and mental health by giving them the authority and tools to act, as well as other resources to refer their people, will help prevent burnout. And by creating a united front on empathy, employees will feel understood, cared for, and valued.

When employees perceive both their leader and the overall organization is empathetic, they:

  • Feel more seen and valued (+64%)
  • Feel more fulfilled at work (+40%)
  • Are more satisfied with workplace culture (+40%)
  • Want to stay longer (+3 years)

2. Seek employee feedback to understand their experiences and challenges

A workplace that embraces a culture of practical empathy begins with understanding employee experiences, perspectives, and challenges.

Invite feedback from employees in surveys, focus groups, town halls, and one-to-one meetings. Get to know their opinions, hopes, and struggles—regularly. Even questions like “how are things going outside of work?” are worth asking.

When employees feel their organization has a culture of understanding, the odds of positive outcomes greatly improve, including:

  • Above-average engagement (20x)
  • Strong connection to the organization (17x)
  • Accomplishing great work (14x)
  • Rating their workplace community as strong (18x)

3. Lead with action

Leaders at every level should take supportive action to help meet employees’ psychological needs for autonomy, mastery, and connection at work. This means regularly, proactively meeting with their people (not just when employees come to them with a problem), actively listening, and providing support such as removing roadblocks or expressing genuine appreciation. Action also entails guiding employees to company or outside resources when needed. And the act of recognizing employees for great work can significantly increase care and empathy on teams.6

When leaders’ empathy contains meaningful action and support, employees are:

A table showing that when leaders’ empathy contains meaningful action and support, it significantly increases care and empathy on teams.

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Practical Empathy—Key Takeaways

Effective empathy is a practice of care.

Practical empathy is grounded in understanding and supported by action.

Leaders must seek to learn the experiences and needs of their people so they can respond with meaningful action and support.

Without training or boundaries, leaders risk experiencing empathy fatigue and burnout.

Practical Empathy Sources

  1. “Making Empathy Central to Your Company Culture,” Jamil Zaki, Harvard Business Review, May 30, 2019.
  2. “New EY US Consulting Study: Employees Overwhelmingly Expect Empathy in the Workplace, But Many Say It Feels Disingenuous,” Jennifer Hemmerdinger, EY Press Release, March 30, 2023.
  3. “Peak Experiences,” 2022 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
  4. “Leadership,” 2021 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
  5. Interview with Jason LaRue, Partner and Total Rewards Leader, KPMG, 2023.
  6. “Practice Empathy as a Team,” Christine Porath and Adrienne Boissy, Harvard Business Review, February 10, 2023.
  7. “Southwest on the Importance of Employee Experience,” Tiffani Bova, Forbes, November 17, 2020.
  8. “Southwest Airlines Culture Design Puts Employees First,” Gustavo Razzetti, Fearless Culture, January 12, 2020.
Methodology
41% of employees feel their leaders' expressions of empathy are empty of meaningful deeds.

Experiment

Levels of Empathetic Leadership

To examine the causal impact of empathetic practices, we designed an experiment with five scenarios representing different levels of empathetic leadership in a situation. We divided participants into two groups. One had a leader promoted from within the organization; the other had a leader hired outside the company who had no direct experience in their role. Survey respondents were randomly assigned to each scenario.


Scenario

You are part of a team responsible for the assembly of your company’s signature product. Your team has been tasked with completing a large order that must ship to a client in two weeks. Three days into the project, you arrive at work to find that the number of products needing to be assembled for the order has doubled but the deadline remains the same.

Treatments
A table describing the set of treatments used in an experiment representing different levels of empathetic leadership in a situation.
Results

The experiment yielded three important findings:

  1. The strongest outcomes corresponded to the highest levels of empathy, regardless of whether the leader was hired from outside the organization or promoted internally.
  2. When they practiced empathy, the leader hired externally scored higher on some items than the internally promoted leader, even without previous direct experience in the employee’s role.
  3. Leaders can build trust and facilitate positive employee experiences through empathetic practices of understanding team needs, providing context and active support, and publicly recognizing the efforts of their teams.

Specific findings are detailed in the following tables:

Effect of treatment on trust, perceptions of empathy, connection, and retention:

A table showing the results of the experiment and the effect of treatment on trust, perceptions of empathy,  connection, and retention.

Case Study—A Careful Accounting of Empathetic Practices

Professional services firm, KPMG, uses practical empathy to help its people feel and do their best at work by finding achievement, mastery, purpose, and fulfillment.

Specifically, the firm regularly solicits feedback from partners and employees on how it can help improve their wellbeing and provides extensive resources to support employee mental health—including digital and in-person therapy, caregiver programs, support for major life events, and webcasts to help normalize conversations about mental wellbeing.

In addition, KPMG has removed tasks that aren’t related to leaders’ core jobs so they can focus on being better modern leaders as well as attend to their own needs.

“We don’t want to turn our leaders into therapists, because that’s not good for the individual or the leader,” explains Jason LaRue, Partner and Total Rewards Leader. Instead, the firm puts guardrails around empathy, encouraging leaders to understand and help their people as much as possible, but also ensuring leaders know who to reach out to when necessary.

Says LaRue, “There’s a big opportunity to make empathy a core skill at organizations. There’s a strong ROI. If we invest a dollar in prevention, we see lower medical costs and higher productivity, both of which hit the bottom line. It’s the right thing to do and a real advantage for businesses to do this.”5

Case Study—Elevating Practical Empathy

Southwest Airlines’ stock ticker is LUV for a reason, and the company’s culture is well known for embracing empathy. “We have to know our internal and external customers, be empathetic to their needs and expectations, and focus our efforts on them,” explains James Ashworth, VP, Customer Support & Services. When the company recently heard employees say their tools were getting in the way of doing their best work, it jumped to better understand the problem through focus groups and quickly deployed new solutions.

To help employees know their voices are heard and valued, leaders focus on learning rather than blaming or disciplining, and they encourage people to speak up and solve issues as they arise.

Southwest’s people-centered, empathetic culture has led to 44 consecutive years of profitability, no layoffs or furloughs in its company history, and 85% of employees who say they’re proud to work at the company.7, 8

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