Leaders Need to Learn How to Care and Show It

Leaders Need to Learn How to Care and Show It
Industry Week May 2022
By Sheila Stafford

The Great Resignation has generated new trends in employment, most of which have involved throwing money at workers to make them stay or to lure them in. For the first time in decades, hourly workers are incentivized with signing bonuses, which were previously only used for knowledge-worker and executive recruiting until recently. This author has seen as much as $8,000 being used as a carrot for just one hourly worker in the manufacturing industry. A pair of truckers were offered a $30,000 signing bonus in another instance.

Based on a pandemic-timed Glassdoor survey that uncovered the real reasons why people leave jobs, money is not the answer. The survey revealed that “disrespect” was the No. 1 reason employees leave. Of course, what is viewed as disrespect is in the eye of the beholder, so what can employers do that means something to employees? They need to learn how to care and show it.

Though most humans intrinsically care about one another, the industrial revolution viewed workers as human capital, and 200 years later, not a lot about that has changed. Most of the innovation in manufacturing has occurred on the plant floors but missed the HR department, which manages the most valuable thing in an organization: people.

From my viewpoint—a female engineer who has worked in global organizations like Whirlpool and General Motors—manufacturing can use a more balanced workforce from top to bottom. While it’s unfair to profile male versus female work skills, leadership styles can differ with one attribute that all leaders must focus on: cultivating empathy in this climate.

When leaders truly can connect with a team member’s point of view, magical things can happen. Adages such as “the best things in life are free” and “you can lead a horse to water but cannot make it drink” apply here. Many hiring managers and leaders have been disappointed in team members’ leaving, no matter their salary, and that’s because humans are motivated from within. Another adage that applies here is the concept of “golden handcuffs”—an irony that may be lucrative but certainly not inspiring.

No one can make another do something, but they can inspire others. In leadership training (and parental experiences), we’ve all learned that people are driven to contribute to a purpose. But does sharing a corporate mission make that happen for employees? It begins there, but ultimately, there must be action taken to show empathy on behalf of the employer.

The pandemic taught us many lessons, one of which was how to build new companies and teams without being in the presence of others. How does this happen? If we’re on Zoom, we obviously cannot practice trust falls and know that a team is underneath to catch us.

The tables have turned, and leaders are now forced to see their employees from a very different perspective. The team member/employer relationship now sits in the palm of the employee’s hand.

Starting with a new perspective, here are some ways for leaders to cultivate empathy:

1.  Learn to accept and embrace change. The employer/team member relationship has radically morphed. Make sure you hire managers who can flex to this new world. Mass personalization has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, and the workplace is not immune. Despite high supervisor-to-employee ratios, employees expect that that manager understands them, their needs and their unique situations. Managers must flex to find ways to drive human connection, at scale in a personalized way. Having a lunch for all the folks with a birthday that month or celebrating quirky holidays like National Dog Day will provide opportunities for the manager to engage the employee on a more personal/emotional level.

2.  Ask your employees questions and then implement changes to improve their experience. The goal here is to ensure employees know that they are seen and heard. Lip service will not do. Systematize these actions into your onboarding, retention and exit processes. Even the most basic questions can be insightful. For example, you could ask just two questions: “On a scale of 1-5, how happy are you at work?”  “What could we do that would move that answer up by one point?” Because the second question is very specific (not the generic “how do we improve”), and you are asking to move only a single point (not boil the ocean) you will get ideas that are implementable, that do in fact make a difference.

3.  Rethink benefit packages and include perks that demonstrate the importance of the safety of your employees. Consider people-first benefits for work schedules, commuting and daycare that mean something to their family. For work schedules, for example, can your company accommodate flex scheduling that enables workers to better balance their lives? If not, is there something you can do that allows workers to help one another via shift swap? Simply empowering your team members with tools to create more flexibility in their lives can pay dividends in happiness and retention gains.

4.  Listen more than you talk. There is nothing more attractive than others who genuinely hear feedback and act on what is said. Filling up the room with your opinions only shows what you care about while ignoring what your team members care about.

5.  Bring technology into your HR practice, so all of this is systemized and easy. This is especially crucial for the next generation of hourly workers who grew up on technology and will be frustrated by antiquated methods like paper-pushing, plant-floor kiosk meetings and voicemails they don’t use.  People only retain 20% of the information that is shared with them verbally, so relying on meetings to pass important information is not enough. Leveraging an accessible technology solution can help ensure the remaining 80% is comprehended.