How to Use Human-Centered Leadership to Transform Your Workplace

How to Use Human-Centered Leadership to Transform Your Workplace

Table of Contents

For many years, leaders have defaulted to a business-first operating model in which innovation, growth, and profit were the primary objectives. Employees have mainly been seen as the mechanisms required to get the job done.

Those days are coming to an end. 

As we move through the twenty-first century, it’s becoming increasingly clear that if an organization wants to rise to its full potential, its leaders must elevate the importance of team members. Human-centered leadership is the way forward — and the data shows that when organizations put employees first, positive business outcomes follow.


The rise of human-centered leadership

What do we mean when we say “human-centered leadership?” It’s about understanding what employees need to do their best — then developing, inspiring, and empowering them to reach their full potential. 

Does it work? Well, the pandemic was a test case on an enormous scale. Many leaders grew in empathy as they navigated uncertainty with their employees. And as leaders genuinely cared for their people, most realized that nurturing them wasn’t a distraction from business goals — it actually propelled them toward greater success.

According to Caitlin Duffy, director of research at Gartner, “Organizations that are able to develop more human leaders will find that these leaders’ teams have less turnover, higher engagement scores, and better well-being.”

It seems that most leaders do understand the need for human-centric leadership (90% according to a Gartner survey), yet only 29% of employees agree that their leader is people-centered.

So how can leaders move from knowledge to action and begin to maximize the human side of their business?


1. Be vulnerable

“How do I create a culture where my team feels safe to be open, honest, and authentic?” That’s a question every leader should be asking themselves right now.

According to a recent global survey, 86% of employees feel they aren’t heard fairly or equally at their place of work. Cue the alarm bells. 

To create a work culture where employees feel comfortable sharing their perspectives and communicating freely, leaders need to first model vulnerability themselves. But, many leaders are afraid to — they’re worried that their vulnerability may be perceived as weakness.

Here’s the truth: when leaders are open and authentic, they reveal their human side. And the result of doing so is usually earning more trust and respect from team members — not less. After all, vulnerability doesn’t mean sharing things that aren’t appropriate to the situation. It means welcoming the whole human experience to the table — emotions included. It means offering psychological safety.

So for leaders who are ready to take the leap and be more vulnerable, here are a few initial recommendations.

First, set up one-on-one meetings if you’re not already having these. Regular conversations provide opportunities to talk on a more personal level — about everything from current tasks, to roadblocks, to stress levels, to what you’re looking forward to doing over the weekend. Over time, you’ll build the kind of rapport that allows you to bring up even the most vulnerability-inducing work subjects.

Second, ask for feedback. Show that you value your team’s opinions and are willing to make changes in response. To help employees feel comfortable, try asking for feedback in confidential surveys. It’s a safe environment where people can be honest about how they feel without fearing negative outcomes. Even better, enable Anonymous Conversations, which preserves employee anonymity, but provides a way for leaders to respond. When people realize that their concerns are being heard and taken seriously, it builds trust.

Finally, bring vulnerability into performance and development conversations. Managers should ask for feedback as often as they give it. Goal-setting, quarterly check-ins, and annual reviews are opportunities for a two-way human conversation — not a dreaded talking-down-to.


2. Be empathetic

What is empathy? It’s “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to… the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” That’s just part of Merriam-Webster’s definition. 

But it tells us something important. Empathy starts with awareness. And from awareness, it moves to sensitivity. That means that we’re willing to feel with and be affected by the person in front of us. 

Are most modern workplaces empathetic? Are managers responsive to human needs? Have you asked team members recently if there’s anything standing in the way of their thriving? Do you know how your people are feeling?

Being able to answer these questions shows what empathizing looks like–and empathy is needed in the workplace right now more than ever. One sign of this is the epidemic levels of employee burnout happening across all industries and sectors. According to a report by Deloitte, as many as  77% of U.S. professionals say they have experienced burnout in their current job.

And with Mayo Clinic defining burnout as, “a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity,” burnout is clearly a big deal.

When leaders show genuine care and concern for their employees and use active listening to compassionately understand the situation, they can gauge what their employees are feeling and support their needs. When people are cared for, they’re better able to thrive. And when employees feel heard, supported, and feel like they can bring their whole selves to work, burnout ceases to be an issue.

Another payoff of empathy in the workplace? Empathetic leaders outperform their less-empathetic competitors. According to a report by Ernst & Young, when employees are led by an empathetic leader:

  • 87% see their efficiency increase
  • 86% report increased innovation
  • 87% experience greater creativity
  • 81% believe there’s an increase in overall profit

So how can leaders embrace empathy in their everyday practices? 

Talk less and listen more. One way to empathize with your employees is to take a pulse on their well-being. Regularly ask people how they’re doing. Ask what they need. Provide it if you can. Include the more human side of things in your regular one-on-one conversations, and be open to any feedback employees may have for you. 

When leaders listen attentively to employees’ perspectives, they can move the needle on issues that matter. 


3. Be relational

Humans are wired to be relational. We want to connect, feel valued, and be a part of a group where we are welcomed. In fact, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, besides the essentials of food, clothing, and safety, love, belonging, and esteem are top human needs. This includes a sense of connection and recognition.

Not only do employees want to be recognized and appreciated for their hard work, they actually need it to give their best consistently. Yet despite the unquestionable benefits of employee recognition, so many companies just aren’t getting it right — if they’re even trying at all. 

To build a relational culture where recognition and appreciation are front and center, try these simple strategies: be timely and specific with praise, encourage a multi-directional culture of appreciation, and add rewards to your strategy.

Nothing says “I appreciate you” like recognition and rewards. When you combine the two, not only do employees feel valued, they are also incentivized to keep doing their best.


Human-focused leadership, better business

The message behind the newest leadership shift is clear: when you put people first, your business will reap the benefits.

Remember, leadership is not just about achieving goals and driving profits. It’s about fostering meaningful connections and positively impacting the people you lead. When leaders treat employees as valued, respected humans, everything else will follow. 

Ready to bring the human element into your workplace?