Can Empathetic Managers Reduce Turnover?

vp-of-listening-cartoon.jpgRecently, I have read numerous articles calling for more empathic managers. They’re wrong. Empathy is not the missing piece of employee engagement or trust. Yes. Empathy is better than callousness. That part is true. But empathy is far from the best one can do.

Some of the articles touting the need for greater empathy among managers are based on research but the research didn’t dig deep enough or consider employee’s core self-evaluations of their worth or abilities. Core self-evaluations account for 27-41% of an employee’s engagement and good core self-evaluations protect against burnout.

Before research can be evaluated to determine its worth, it is necessary to understand what factors affect the outcome being examined. For example, if I ask what you ate for dinner last night and then use your answer to make judgments about your habits, your health, and the quality of your pro-health decisions, the results will be useless. Before I can ascertain any of those things I’d have to know whether you had the financial resources to eat something different and chose to eat what you ate. I’d have to know if you were with a group and you acquiesced to the group’s chosen dining location. I’d have to know if you were stressed because stress negatively impacts the health of food choices in 71% of people. I’d have to know if you had time limitations that influenced your decision. Can you think of other information I would need before I could make judgments about the healthiness of your eating habits?

In the same way, research that points to the lack of empathy in managers as a reason for turnover and job dissatisfaction has not asked for all the relevant information. If Paul Harvey were here, he’d tell us we don’t have the rest of the story. This article fills in some of the missing pieces and explains why empathy is not the holy grail of employee retention or anything else.

The best managers won’t feel empathy for more than a brief (momentary) time before they move on to behaviors that inspire their employees.

Let’s frame this conversation by defining happiness:

“The state of happiness we are referring to doesn’t require a constant state of bliss. It is a deep sense of inner stability, peace, well-being, and vitality that is consistent and sustainable. Awareness that one possesses the knowledge and skills to return to a happy state, even when not in that state, is a critical component of sustainable happiness.”[1]

A perpetual state of happiness is not recommended.


A perpetual state of happiness is not recommended. That would necessitate being inauthentic at times and authenticity is extremely healthy. In Remarkable Recoveries[2] one common thread of individuals who experienced spontaneous recoveries from terminal illnesses was a decision to be more authentic. There is enough evidence about the benefits of authenticity that I always recommend be authentic.


It is possible for something to occur that takes one out of the state of happiness, but when the person has enough knowledge and skills that they are sure they know the way back to happiness, they find it easy to feel hopeful and if you have hope, you don’t go to those deep, dark emotional states. In fact, those deep dark emotions reflect the absence of hope. Hopeful is a pretty healthy emotional state, far better than despair and depression and considerably better than frustrated.

Empathy requires finesse. For most people, empathy requires that the person “understand how the upset person feels.” So, for example, let’s say they’ve just found out that someone treated them unfairly (perhaps promoted someone else when they believe they deserved the promotion or cheated on them in a relationship). I’ll use the cheated on analogy as I explain further because most people can relate to relationship issues.

So, let’s talk about this analogy. Someone is emotionally upset about being cheated on. As their friend, we’re taught to feel empathy for them. This translates into finding out the nitty-gritty details of the transgression and feeling indignant anger and hurt for them by attempting to feel as they feel and validate the feelings they feel.

The discussion where we learn the nitty, gritty details has a scientific name, co-rumination. Negative rumination is when an individual thinks about unwanted outcomes. Co-rumination is when you share your unhappiness with someone else and it happens to be an unhealthy habit of thought that increases the risk of depression.

In other words, in order to understand the bad things happening to someone so that you can feel empathy for them, you have to co-ruminate, which is an unhealthy habit of thought associated with depression. Given the high rate of depression in our population and the detrimental effects it has on our relationships and physical health, t is probably better to skip that step whenever possible.

One of the first things my students learn is that you feel what you feel, no outside validation is necessary. If you feel it, then it is your emotion. You own it. It is the result of your perspective on the topic on which you are focused. There are many other perspectives that could be chosen—millions in fact. Your power resides in the choices you make.

What most people do is take the emotional hit and then make it worse.

I trusted her and love her and she cheated on me.

They can choose from millions of thoughts that make it worse:

  • I’m a horrible judge of character to marry a woman who would cheat on me.
  • I’ll be alone the rest of my life because I’ll never be able to trust anyone again.
  • I don’t want to lose her, I don’t want to be alone.
  • Will I get to see the kids often if I divorce her or will I have full custody and how will I manage that?
  • What is wrong with me that she was not satisfied with me?

The list of potential thoughts that feel even worse goes on and on.

If you go right there with your friend, you’re feeling anger and despair right along with him. In that emotional state, your cognitive abilities decrease. You’re less able to help him find solutions to the questions that are plaguing him. (I’ll ignore the negative health effects of stress for the purposes of this conversation but they are there. Negative emotions are an indicator that tell you that you’re experiencing stress.) As you enter that emotional state, emphasizing with him, you are also projecting lower expectations about his future prospects to him than you would from a higher emotional state where you would have a broader viewpoint.

That is why I don’t encourage empathy—and especially not long-term empathy. What I recommend instead has several benefits to both people.

First, a word about this. I think it would be very difficult for anyone raised in our current society to not feel empathy for a friend who has experienced something unwanted. It is the duration you’re willing to tolerate the lower emotional state to feel as they feel that I encourage you to shorten—drastically.

Researchers have looked at empathy and found some surprising results. The negative emotional hit that someone who is feeling empathy feels is often worse than the negative emotional hit the person who is actually experiencing the loss feels. The person in the actual situation begins accepting the situation almost as soon as they experience it. The researchers looked at individuals who had lost a child in a natural disaster—a devastating experience. But once it happens, the parent begins the process of accepting the loss whereas the person empathizing with the loss does things like imagine how awful it would be if that were to happen to them and their child. (Consider this when you subject yourself to the nightly reports of violence you allow in your home and psyche.)

Researchers have also looked at and recorded the body’s responses to pain and the watchers’ negative hit is worse than the person who, for example, hits his thumb with a hammer.

I found the research interesting and eye-opening. Our imaginations are powerful and when we are the observer, our imagination is able to make our emotional response worse than that of the person actually experiencing the loss.

Other research demonstrates that our pets are mood lifters. When you’re emotionally upset your dog or cat is likely to notice but they will not join you in your low emotional state. Our family dog will sit with anyone who is emotionally upset, seeming to offer comfort, but the moment she senses the person might be ready to feel better she’ll try to start licking them and it always works.

Instead, see the Potential Benefits ASAP

For example, one of my friends lost her job last year. Upon hearing her news I was upset for her—for something less than about 60 seconds. I have trained myself to see the silver lining so my mind automatically went to thoughts that felt better, in this case, they included:

She hated that job anyway and would have probably stayed too long, continuing to be unhappy for long periods of time each day. It was hurting her health and now she will find something better. She is a well-qualified professional in her field. I am confident she will find something she likes better. This change could lessen her long commute and may make more money in her new job. This is going to turn out well for her. In fact, Joe was telling me he was looking for someone for a similar position last time we talked, I’ll introduce them. Joe would really appreciate her talents and I think they’d work well together.

If I had stayed in a state of empathy, feeling angry on her behalf, it might have been days before I recalled the fact that Joe was looking for someone. I would also not have been in a position to help her remember that she is talented and well-qualified and the fact that her former employer did not appreciate her does not mean she isn’t. The employer could have had myriad reasons for letting her go that had nothing to do with her talent or skill. Perhaps he wanted someone he has a relationship with or a familial relationship. It does not matter. It could have been that her dislike of the work did impact her performance (almost certainly somewhat true), which does not say she would not be highly competent in another role, but that the structure of that particular position did not suit her strengths and/or personality.

In a broad sense, what I encourage in lieu of empathy after that first hit that is pretty inevitable is to look for the silver lining and then help the person see it for herself. See the potential the person has for wellness, for great relationships, for success. See it so clearly that you expect that for them. I won’t go into it here, in True Prevention—Optimum Health: Remember Galileo I expand on it, but research has shown that we have the ability to influence others significantly with our expectations of them.

The ability to see the person fully recovered from whatever is wrong serves them far better than you feeling as they do—despair, hopelessness, anger, resentment, jealousy, rage, frustration, fear, etc.

When you emphasize and feel as they feel your cognitive abilities restrict and you see the world as they do—from a narrowed viewpoint—a viewpoint that cannot see the good possibilities in the future.

When you see the person for their potential, your emotional state remains at a higher level and you have the ability to influence them to move in a better-feeling emotional direction.

It really is most difficult to teach people who knew you before you were an expert. I understand why. The point is that I do spend time with people who do not do as I do. My friends seek me out when they are troubled because they have learned that I help them find a way to feel better. Seeing the good possibilities feels better than having the negative emotions validated via empathy. I don’t judge their emotions. Emotions are responses to thoughts that we think that assume a specific perspective. We have the ability to change our perspective and feel better but most people assume when they feel a thought that feels bad that it is the only way to look at the situation.

If the emotional response to the thought feels bad there is always a better-feeling way to look at the situation.

Helping someone see their potential is a gift

I’ll go back to the example of the man who found out his wife cheated on him. One of the very first things I go to when someone’s relationship rules are violated in this way is reminding the person that the desire they have is for a relationship with integrity with someone they trust who agrees to the rules for the relationship that they desire. They obviously did not have that and now they know. They did not have that before the actual cheating occurred because if they did the person would not have cheated. I also help them see that the cheating has nothing to do with them—it does not say they are not a good partner. The cheating was about the person who made the decision to cheat.

Our behavior is always the result of a combination of things including our current emotional state. Share examples of people whose first marriage ended and after a while, they find that they are delighted with the outcome. I’ll share my own story about how devastated I was when my first husband cheated and then talk about eventually writing a thank you letter to the other woman. At the point in time that I realized how much better my life had become than it ever would have had I remained married to him, I felt gratitude to her for taking him off my hands. This gives hope when the person is feeling hopeless. It uplifts. It helps the other person see the possibilities for his or her future in a better light than they would achieve quickly if all I did was feel anger with them and validate their current emotional state (empathizing).

When we feel emotion it is a valid response to the thought we are thinking.

When we feel emotion, it is a valid response to the thought we are thinking. The emotion is valid. However, it is not the only possible perspective about that topic. Our emotions indicate whether our thought on that topic is serving our highest good. If the response to the thought feels worse, it is moving in the wrong direction. If the response to the thought feels better, it is moving in the right direction.

None of this means that you treat the others’ emotions as wrong. It does not mean you do not care or are not concerned for their well-being. It means that you have a clearer view of a path, or paths, which will help them recover from the loss faster. A positive expectation about someone, even just in the privacy of your own mind, can increase the other person’s ability to be resilient. You can help them bounce back faster.

It requires sensitivity as to when you speak about those paths. It is not appropriate to speak of them when the person is not yet receptive. It is best to begin in a general place (even if you have specifics in mind). For example, I know you’re a strong person. I know you’ll get through this. You have a lot of friends who are willing to help you. You are not alone.

Often, the mere act of holding someone and giving him or her space to experience their current emotions is all you can do in that moment. But rather than drop down into their emotional state while you hold the person, do your best to see the potential for a better future.

Our society tends to hug too briefly for the therapeutic benefits. An 18-second hug feels long to most westerners but that is how long it takes for a wonderful chemical cocktail to be released by the body that is soothing and healing.

Sometimes I will write down the potential I see in the other person if they are not ready to hear about the silver linings I see. I may or may not ever share what I write but what it does is strengthen my expectation for their recovery in a way that helps to make my expectation more dominant. This has a beneficial effect on them that is explained in my book based on something quantum physicists have discovered.

It’s not much different than what many parents do naturally when their child has suffered a disappointment. Although some parents become angry and belligerent when their child does not attain a desired role in the school play, many will be sympathetic while also recognizing the learning opportunity. They may feel glad that the child is learning that even though disappointments are painful, they live through them and will recover. They may feel grateful the child has the opportunity to learn this while the parent is still around to provide comfort. The parent that knows the child who is hurting, for example, because her best friend invited someone else to go with her to the circus, will feel better and will have many fun times in her life is of much greater value to the child than the parent who feels anger, resentment, and jealousy on behalf of the child–the empathetic response. I think it is easier to see the type of stance I recommend when we look at parent-child relationships but it works equally well with friends, and employee/boss relationships. It even works with strangers the news media thrusts into your home.

Not latching on to empathy doesn’t mean you won’t work toward solving the problem if there is something you can do. The perspective many people seem to convey is that we have to be empathetic to solve the big problems. But we’re smart creatures. We don’t have to steep ourselves in how it would feel to know we’d like to do something about these problems such as families living in war zones, hunger, poverty, and other adversities people live with around the world. It is immediately apparent that peace, plenty of food, abundance, and other pleasing circumstances would be better for everyone. Einstein said:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

When we look at a problem in the way I recommend, we immediately turn our attention toward solutions. Empathy, the way much of the world encourages it, keeps us focused on the problem. You have to focus on solutions to solve problems.

Let’s look at this from another angle. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another but our society encourages going to the lowest common denominator with empathy. A situation where both people feel the emotional state of the one who is at the lowest emotional point. What I recommend is, when the person in the lower emotional state is ready to reach for better-feeling emotions, that the one who sees the potential be the one that is empathized with. This process raises the emotional state of the one who is in the lower emotional state.

Now you know the rest of the story and why I recommend managers strive to see the potential in their employees so they can help employees see it too. Caring doesn’t mean feeling badly because someone else is feeling badly. Caring means doing anything you can to help and seeing the person overcoming challenges is more motivational that lamenting about the current reality.


Although the explanation in this article is long, it is not complete because there are nuances that can help a person develop the skills to become more naturally positively focused. True Prevention—Optimum Health: Remember Galileo provides many of those nuances as well as techniques that help individuals develop skills that help them feel good and see the potential and silver linings that are always present. Citations to research I mention are available in my books and on my website. I provide training programs that increase authenticity and positivity.

The only way to really understand these skills is to use them yourself and feel resonance with the improved outcomes. Just as you cannot imagine precisely what it is like to play the violin if you’ve never held one in your hands, these skills are best proved to yourself, by yourself, through the act of paying attention to how you feel as you use them.


Barasch, M. I., & Hirshberg , C. (1995). Remarkable Recovery: What Extraordinary Healings Tell Us About Getting Well and Staying Well.

Joy, Ph.D., J. (2016). Empowered Employees become Engaged Employees. Concord: Thrive More Now

[1] (Joy, Ph.D., 2016)

[2] (Barasch & Hirshberg , 1995)

Originally published by Bizcatalyst360

Jeanine Joy PHd

Jeanine Joy PHd

Jeanine Joy is an author, trainer, and keynote speaker intent on helping individuals and organizations thrive more in spite of adversity. Her latest book, Burnout: Prevention and Recovery: Resilience and Retention, details solutions to burnout and gives insights to its causes and actions individuals and organizations can take to mitigate stress. If you would like to learn how she can help your organization thrive more, contact her at

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