There’s an Employee Retention Crisis: Empathetic Leaders Are Needed

Empathy is a necessity for leaders today. Engineer Caitlin Kalinowski explains how important empathy is in the workplace and how it can help retain workers.

The Great Resignation shows little signs of slowing. In November 2021, 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs. The number broke the record set in September of 4.4 million voluntarily leaving their jobs.(1) This rate is likely to continue in 2022, but smart employers recognize that one way to combat the trend is via empathy. Empathy can be defined as actively putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and figuring out how to treat them based on how you think they are feeling, what they are going through and what their experiences are. “I don’t think leaders can be successful in the workplace of today without modeling empathy,” explains product engineer Caitlin Kalinowski.


As recently as the middle of the 20th century, many viewed empathy as a weakness, an attitude that has since been falling out of favor. In contrast, leaders who demonstrate empathy are increasingly being seen as more effective. The U.S.’s current labor shortage—there’s at least one open job for every American seeking work and 10.4 million job openings in September—means there are more options for employment than ever.(2) Empathy is the answer when it comes to retaining employees as it would be seen as a personal connection. Executives who ignore empathy are much more likely to lose talent to competitors amid the Great Resignation.

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Emotional intelligence vs. IQ

It is no longer enough for leaders to exhibit a high IQ, they must also display strong emotional intelligence (EI). EI is defined as the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions—ours and others. Although researchers are still undecided whether EI can be learned (and thus strengthened) or it’s inborn, the ability to understand, interpret and respond to emotions is an essential characteristic.(3) This is particularly important for the newest generation entering the workforce, Generation Z. This group is driving a new approach to leadership and management, one that demands empathy. Emotional intelligence is vital to effectively motivate and engage Gen Z workers, including how leaders present themselves, from mannerisms to leadership style. All of that is being assessed and measured by these newest members of the workforce.(4)

Unfortunately, not everyone is naturally predisposed to empathy, but it can be learned. Everyone has the capability of being empathetic, according to Kalinowski. She credits her executive coach, Maggie Hensle, owner of Vérité Leadership Coaching and Consulting, with helping her learn and develop her skills in the area of empathy. “It is a choice you make every day, to decide to try to think about what it might be like for somebody else,” Kalinowski says. “It is an action. And the more you practice, the better you get at it.”

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Part of showing employees empathy may include providing them better options. For instance, you may have to help them find a role in another part of the company, where they will be happy, rather than lose them to another employer. Prioritizing the company over your own needs as a manager or leader allows you to win in the race for talent at a higher level. The key is keeping employees engaged by providing them with a sense of importance, belonging, surety, and growth.

For those who need it, having a coach who knows you is the best way to “train” yourself to be more empathetic. “Empathy is an activity, not a checklist,” Kalinowski shares. “Empathetic leadership is engagement and understanding more than listening. It’s a practice that you get better at the more you do it.”

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