How Leadership with Empathy Drives Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I)

How Leadership with Empathy Drives Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I)

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What diverse team members want most from their employer when it comes to matters like Pride & LGBTQ+, intersectionality,  is leadership with empathy to drive all things DE&I related.

It’s more than inclusive language, equitable benefits, and better representation (although those are very important, as well).

More than anything, people who aren’t part of the majority want to feel heard and understood,  accepted, and appreciated. No judgment, no checking themselves at the door, and no putting on their “work face” before starting the day.

Yet data suggests an overwhelming majority of employees feel empathy remains undervalued. And while 92% of CEOs believe they lead an empathetic organization, only 50% of employees describe their CEO as empathetic. Doesn’t leadership tone typically cascade from the top?

Empathetic leadership is foundational to building work environments where everyone belongs. It’s also integral to building psychological safety, a prerequisite for risk-taking, innovation, and general well-being.

“The value that I really learned to appreciate deeply and which I talk about a great deal is empathy. I don’t think it is simply a “nice to have” but I believe it is at the center of the agenda for innovation here at Microsoft.” – Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

Is Empathetic DE&I Leadership Training Possible?

Empathy is one of those things that’s simple to understand, yet not always easy to execute. We define empathy as understanding another person’s feelings, thoughts, and actions. It’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if their shoes don’t quite fit. Empathy says, “I see you,” “I hear you,” and “You matter.”

But believing in the power of empathy doesn’t just make it so — does it? It’s about putting the power of empathy into action. And we’re not just talking about the actions of people and culture professionals. Empathy applies to all leaders (C-suite executives and managers alike).

Here’s the really great news: Research shows that empathy is not a fixed quality you either do or don’t have — it can be developed. Yep, it’s 100% possible to start building a culture of empathy in your workplace.

How to Build an Empathetic DE&I Culture Where Everyone Belongs

Tune In To The Employee Voice

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said “Riot is the language of the unheard.” But long before a riot starts, there’s almost always a sense of disenfranchisement amongst those who feel unheard.

Giving people a voice can make all the difference. In workplaces, when business leaders invite employees to share their experiences and insights, they build trust. The leaders themselves also become better equipped to support their employees in ways that really matter.

That’s why operationalizing the Employee Voice is such a powerful tool for building empathy.

By consistently gathering employee insights through continuous listening surveys leaders are able to support action across the entire employee lifecycle with powerful technology and analytics.

Consider a survey that gives employees the opportunity to speak up about their beliefs and attitudes toward DEI in their workplace. Based on reliable data, leaders can gain insights into:

  • % employees who feel like they belong in their workplace
  • % of employees who feel safe discussing race or gender issues
  • % of employees who view company leaders as trustworthy
  • % of employees who have experienced harassment or discrimination in their workplace
  • % of employees who know how to access DEI resources when needed


Compare and Track DE&I Progress

Moreover, a deeper slice and dice look at this data can reveal how the sentiments of underrepresented populations vary in different parts of your organization. You can see if there’s a gap in hiring practices, or career development and progression by any number of different factors (gender, orientation, age, education, and language, for instance).

Additionally, by giving employees a voice through surveys, leaders are able to make decisions based on real-time employee feedback. Results can be tracked and compared against a baseline. Whether that’s a full-out DEI demographic and sentiment survey, or a quick pulse DEI check-in, continuous active listening insights give leaders and people and culture professionals the ability to track progress — and — encourages  productive dialogue.

  • Is employee sentiment around DEI more or less positive than it was last quarter?
  • Last year?
  • Why?
  • How much are DEI efforts driving employee retention?

When teams start with a reality check (collecting survey data), ask themselves hard questions (interpreting that data), then use it in decision-making…that’s where the magic happens. That is the future of work.


Don’t Just Listen, Take DE&I Action

Once you’ve tuned in to the Employee Voice, it’s time to do what really matters — act.

Active Listening starts as a survey methodology that evolves into continuously listening to your employees. And that includes 1:1s, sync-ups, and regular performance conversations. Taking action based on the feedback provided. Checking in again. Making changes. And repeating over and over and over again.

By collecting employee feedback and responding in a timely fashion active listening improves communication up, down, and across your entire organizational culture. The bonus: it nurtures a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace where everyone belongs.

Consider these 5 tips for building active listening skills, taking action, and making people feel heard:

1. Attentiveness underpins empathy

Attention may just be the single hottest commodity in the business world right now.

When a people leader tunes in to what a member of their team is saying, they communicate that that individual is more valuable than anything else in that moment, and it affirms their intrinsic worth.

Heads up: listening to someone means paying attention to more than their words. It’s being attentive to body language, inflection, pace of speech. Being adaptive, and always open to feedback. And if something seems out of character, or unclear, asking about it.

2. Show up. Be present. Validate.

Empathetic leaders know it’s not enough to simply listen. They understand that their conversation partner needs to know they’re with them. And they show they’re really tuned in by:

  • Avoiding interruption
  • Asking clarifying questions (“Tell me more about that…”)
  • Acknowledging with hmm’s, oh’s, wow’s, yes’s…
  • Circling back to summarize (This is especially important if there’s conflict involved —the goal is to be able to repeat the other person’s points back to them accurately and even-handedly).

3. Put two-way dialogue to work as a powerful leadership tool

A few years ago, Google launched a project aimed at understanding what makes an ideal team. They discovered that it’s not about individual brilliance, cumulative talent, or the mix of personalities. Far and away, it’s about psychological safety.

There were two key ingredients in Google’s findings: 1) emotional intelligence and 2) conversational turn-taking.

Google’s power teams turned out to be those whose members shared air-time. No single person ran away with the conversation in meetings.

Our main takeaway? You can’t understand what you can’t hear, and you can’t hear if you’re always talking.

4. Attitude is everything when it comes to an empathetic DEI culture

People can tell if a conversation partner is open, which is why it’s important to cultivate a mindset of curiosity. How? You and your leaders first need to do the hard work of uprooting your own hidden biases. Building a corporate culture of empathy in your workplace starts with inner work.

5. Build trust by inviting continuous feedback

An empathetic leader is one who makes it easy to say what needs to be said and hears what needs to be heard. The psychological safety that comes when an individual knows they’ll be heard without any threat of reprisal is powerful. It builds trust.

Why would an employee choose to self-identify their orientation? Or mental health disability? Talk about work/life challenges? Cultural beliefs? Or during a performance check-in share that they’re performance is suffering because of burnout?

In large part it’s because their leader has demonstrated vulnerability and built lots and lots of trust.

Trust is a feeling that evolves. That has to be earned. It’s one of a leader’s most critical responsibilities. And it’s a critical factor in the relationship between employees and their organization’s DEI commitments.

Reinforce Empathetic DE&I Behavior With Recognition & Rewards

It’s true that leaders who demonstrate empathy can make a company culture. But don’t we want to experience empathy from everyone?

You know what they say — what gets recognized and rewarded gets repeated.

Using a strategic recognition and rewards program is a practical way to reinforce the behaviors that you want to see more of and in the process, boost employee engagement.

So model empathy-building behaviors for your people like the ones described above. Encourage everyone, not just leaders, to recognize employees for practicing those behaviors. (And remember, leaders of all levels are employees too). Encourage everybody, not just leaders, to reward each other as they experience active listening, inclusive attitudes, empathy and support.

That’s how positive norms take hold.

And we can help with that.

Empathy Power Tools: For when the going stays tough

The practices we’ve shared are indispensable to building empathy into your work culture. But occasionally, you need to do some deep work, and fast (here’s looking at you, 2020).

Try adding these empathy training tools to your toolbox for an extra boost:

  1. Empathy circles. In 2020, Zendesk created a practical playbook for facilitating vulnerable conversations around sensitive issues that includes a structured format for exchanging personal stories, feelings, and feelings around a specific theme, whether it be racial injustice, gender bias, or beyond.
  2. Fish bowl. This conversational listening strategy is all about being “a fly on the wall” as key stakeholders discuss a chosen topic. It was originally designed for a classroom setting, but can easily be adapted for a work context, as well.
  3. A mile in my shoes. Personal stories have the unique power to dismantle judgment, bias, bigotry, and hate. And, signal that vulnerability is okay. Consider inviting a senior leader (or third party into your organization) to share their stories through writing, video, or in person. For inspiration, check out The Human Library. We love their tagline: “Unjudge someone.”

Enjoy the Benefits of Empathy & Belonging at Work

All too often, DEI strategies have involved telling people what we’re going to do for them. Isn’t it time we listened to them, instead?

Empathic, effective leadership — through listening — is the starting place. And active allyship is where it ends up.