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The Intersection of Unhappiness, Empathy, and Engagement

I spend a lot of time talking about how companies need to do better by their female employees—and I still wholeheartedly believe that. But I also know that women in leadership roles need to work on their leadership style as well. 

According to the State of the Global Workplace report by Gallup, only 21% of employees are engaged at work, only 33% say they’re thriving in their overall wellbeing, and 44% feel stress daily (a number that’s even higher for women, specifically those in the U.S. and Canada). Yes, these numbers affect women leadership, but it also reflects leadership by women. 

If we want our employees and companies to do better, we need to work on morale, happiness, and motivation. Sure, you can do employee satisfaction surveys, but are you looking at the answers in the right way? If you have a lot of 3 and 4s, that’s not great. Those are “good but” answers, and means there’s something wrong in that area which needs to be addressed by leadership. After all, our goal should be to create super fans out of our employees (if you’re not familiar with the idea, listen to my podcast with Brittany Hodak).

According to Chief, “Gallup’s research found that teams with engaged workers have a 23% higher profit margin, and see less absenteeism, turnover, and accidents, and benefit from increased customer loyalty.” Want your department or company to do better? Engage your employees. 

“Well sure, Elizabeth, I want engaged employees. But how do I get them engaged?” I hear you. There are a few ways, but the first step is to talk to them. I’m not talking about a generic feedback survey. Frame your questions carefully so that you get actionable feedback, instead of feedback that’s nothing more than the rant of an unhappy, angry person. Some suggestions: 

  • If you ran the company, what’s one thing you would do differently? 

  • What’s one company policy you would change? How and why? 

  • What’s one way you would improve our team’s (or company’s) culture? 

  • What do you need to be happier in your current role? 

  • Is there something you wish the company did more often? 

  • What’s your favorite thing our company does to support employees?

And never forget the old adage: employees don’t quit a job, they quit their manager. It’s still said for a reason. According to the Washington Post, “People who think of their immediate supervisor as more of a “partner” than a “boss” are significantly happier with their day-to-day lives and more satisfied with their lives overall.”

The happier your employees, the more engaged, and therefore, the more profit you make. Not a bad cause and effect to experience. While trying to be a better manager, however, it’s important not to fall into the trap of hiring clones of yourself. If you want great, engaged employees, you need to hire to your weaknesses, instead. 

Jon Clifton, Gallup CEO, points out, “People never become great because they emulate someone else. They become great because they develop more of who they are. They became the best version of themselves.” Not only will your team be stronger when it includes a wide variety of skills, but you’ll be seen as a great manager because you are helping your employees develop their unique skills. Again, it’s a win-win: employees are happier and motivated, so you get more profit and less turnover. No one is going to want to leave a manager who wants to help them become the best possible version of themself. 

It’s important to remember that engagement is inexorably tied to wellbeing. As the Gallup report states, “how people experience work influences their lives outside work, and overall wellbeing influences life at work.” While the questions above are great for addressing the worker part of the equation, you need to remember the rest of the person, too. 

Do they have a family at home? Is someone in their household chronically ill or have additional needs that’s causing them stress? Do they have a partner to lean on or are they a single parent? Are they the sole caretaker for an aging parent? All of these can add stress to their home life, which they then bring into the office, affecting how engaged they are. Maybe being able to work from home a few days a week would make taking care of the kids easier, so they could concentrate more on that important project you just assigned them. 

Practising empathy can greatly increase engagement with your team, but it doesn’t come easily to everyone. Here are a few tips to get your empathy ball rolling: 

  • Each week, ask each employee about the level of their current workload. Knowing when they’ve been overloaded can help stop burnout before it starts and lets them know you care about their wellbeing.

  • Ask about their family, including children, pets, siblings, and/or parents. (If you have a hard time with names, keep a cheat sheet that you update after every 1:1.) When possible, offer solutions that can help them in times of stress (i.e. “why don’t you work from home this week so you can help your mom recover from surgery”). 

  • If you have a smaller team, start a birthday tradition so every employee feels valued such as a birthday cake or cupcake, or a hand-written card. If it’s a mid-sized team, try sending an individual message to the person on each birthday. For larger teams, try a birthday week (or month) email. What works best will depend on your specific situation and your teams’ personalities. 

  • Ask about their professional and personal goals, and do what you can to help further them. Offer to pay for training or courses that further skills that can help the company. Check in on their progress for personal goals you can’t professionally help. (“How did your performance go on Friday?” “How’s progress on your book going?”) Not only does it show that you’re engaged with them, you may discover hidden talents and skills that could improve a project that the employee doesn’t know about. 

And remember, empathetic leadership can be learned. It’s a skill like any other. Start small and work your way up. Ask your company if they have (or will sponsor) empathy training if you need more help. If your entire team needs some help, try offering an active listening training event. You can’t be empathetic if you aren’t truly listening, after all. 

If your company has a high level of turnover (hello great resignation), or employees are quiet quitting, try implementing some of the tips in this article yourself. Or, if you’re already a great manager, which I suspect most of my readers are, bring up the issue of engagement and unhappiness with the rest of the leadership team. You can affect great change with a single spark. Are you ready to be that spark? 


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