A Look at 'The Great Resignation': Why Empathy is a Powerful Leadership Tool

June 21, 2022

A Look at 'The Great Resignation': Why Empathy is a Powerful Leadership Tool

For 100 years, practical, functional leadership that capitalizes on employees as “productivity machines” has been the norm. However, with the younger generations entering the workforce, plus the global upheaval caused by the pandemic and the war between Ukraine and Russia, the call for empathetic leadership is stronger than ever before.

When COVID-19 put everyone’s normal lives to a standstill and proceeded to shake what we know to the core, a trend in the labor market began to emerge, which they called the Great Resignation. However, some believe that the Great Resignation began even before the pandemic.

The Great Resignation

According to Investopedia, “‘The Great Resignation’ describes the elevated rate at which U.S. workers have quit their jobs starting in the spring of 2021, amid strong labor demand and low unemployment as vaccinations eased the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Most sources believe that the most likely cause for the Great Resignation is the intense competition in the job market for talents driven by a high number of job vacancies and the record low unemployment rate.

As for the reasons why they quit, the majority of American workers who quit a job in 2021 say their reasons are either low pay (63%), little to no opportunities for career advancement (63%), or feeling disrespected at work (57%), according to Pew Research. Other reasons cited are childcare issues (48%, especially those with kids aged under 18), flexibility to choose working hours (45%), and a lack of good benefits such as health insurance and paid time off (43%).

But despite the record high numbers of resignees, the unemployment rate remains low. In fact, in the same demographic study done by Pew Research, a majority of those who quit a job in 2021 and are not retired say they are now employed, either full-time (55%) or part-time (23%), and 61% of them say it was easy to get a new job.

Moreover, workers who quit a job last year and are now employed somewhere else see their current work situation as an improvement over their most recent job. At least half of these workers say that compared with their last job, they are now earning more money (56%), have more opportunities for advancement (53%), and have an easier time balancing work and family responsibilities (53%), and they have more flexibility to choose when they put in their work hours (50%). (Source: Pew Research)

What do these statistics tell us about entrepreneurs, small business owners, and employers? Workers are now demanding better work conditions, and they are willing to gamble to leave their jobs in search of “greener pastures”. Or, in this case, better employers.

The Advent of Empathetic Leadership

I interviewed Adam Bandelli for a Success magazine podcast episode, and he said this about the Great Resignation: “These people [especially the younger generation] are not quitting their jobs. They are quitting their bosses.”

There’s a call for empathy in the workplace. And it is understandable. With new knowledge and awareness about mental health and the social campaign for “work-life balance,” the days when leaders could treat their employees like money-making machines and get away with it are a thing of the past. 

When I was starting out as a leader, people often told me that my approach was too soft. And for a while, I believed them too.

There were a couple of times when I tried to be a little bit more hard-core and mean. But it didn’t work for me. It actually produced the wrong results.

That’s why I decided to stick to my philosophy and lead with kindness. My business has been steadily growing, and the people who work for me are more aligned with my goals. 

The shift was simple: I started thinking about how my people are humans with their own personal challenges on top of their professional goals, just like me. And that is the basis of empathetic leadership.

According to Tony Robbins, “Empathetic leadership is a style of leadership that focuses on identifying with others and understanding their point of view.” It takes a genuine interest to understand other people, what makes them tick, what inspires them, and how they feel.

If self-care and time for my family are as important to me as making profits to provide them with the things they need and want, it isn’t a stretch to think that the people who work for me want the same thing.

As a leader, my focus shifted from “How do I meet this quarter’s goals?” to “How can I help my people be their best so that they can focus more on meeting the team’s shared goals?”

And it gave me the results I’ve been hoping for that I didn’t manage to get when I went down the “hard-core leader” route.

It is all about connecting with your team and trusting their skills and work ethics. You hired them, so it is also about trusting yourself and your good judgment in choosing these people to get the job done for you.

I think now, more than ever, that we are coming out of a series of upheavals, from the pandemic to the war and rising inflation. We need to have more empathetic leaders.

A year after the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, statistics showed that suicide rates shot up from 11.3 (per 100,000 deaths) to 13.9 in 1921, writes Annalisa Merelli, a senior reporter, in her article for Quartz.

What little data we have so far about the COVID-19 pandemic is similar. Suicide rates declined during the first year, going from 13.9 (47,511 deaths) in 2019 to 13.5 (45,855 deaths) in 2020. Estimates put the US suicide rate in 2021 at 15.1. This is consistent with literature about mental health effects following large-scale crises—such as the Fukushima disaster or 9/11. The worst impact is usually felt about a year after the disaster, says Aki Nikolaidis, a scientist at the Child Mind Institute, who has been researching the effects of COVID-19 stressors on mental health. (Source: Quartz)

Burnout is a common theme among the majority of the American workforce.

While we cannot completely eliminate stress and burnout, a little empathy goes a long way in alleviating it. Empathy builds trust in the workplace, strengthens your teams, and gives them more headspace to make better decisions. Empathetic leaders often have a better influence on others because they can communicate and connect better with other people.

At the end of the day, business is all about building relationships, and empathy is a core ingredient for strong and lasting relationships. Let’s make the world a kinder place.

Thank you for reading A Brilliant Tribe.