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Empathy is the go-to leadership skill of the moment—and yes, it can be learned

November 10, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

As a brand-new Fortune 500 CEO, Zoetis’s Kristin Peck didn’t have all the answers as to how the fast-growing pet health company was going to survive the pandemic. She had only ascended to the corner office in January of 2020: So when COVID started to rev up by March, she was feeling nervous, anxious, and frankly a little overstretched, and figured that the company’s 11,300 workers probably were, too. 

So in one of her first COVID-era missives on the company intranet, Peck talked not about typical subjects like earnings or sales projections, but something else entirely: the importance of listening. 

The first step “begins with slowing down and spending a lot of time listening to the challenges people are facing personally and professionally,” she wrote. Later, in a LinkedIn post, she shared her own personal story of raising a child with special medical needs, to demonstrate that it was okay for employees to talk about messy realities, and to ask for help if they needed it.

“What the pandemic did was make everybody realize we were all in the same storm, but our boats were quite different,” says Peck. “We had to become very clear about the importance of listening to people, and understanding their needs, and being flexible.”

Practically, that meant shifting to a largely work-from-home model for about 70% of Zoetis’s global workforce. It also meant providing beefed-up benefits like a health care concierge service for caregivers, a student loan repayment program, and improved mental health support services through its employee assistance program.

Peck’s efforts seem to have hit the mark: The company’s employee engagement metrics are “higher than they’ve ever been,” she says, now at 88% and eclipsing pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile hard numbers like the stock price have done very nicely indeed: From March 2020 through Nov. 8 of this year, Zoetis rose almost 38% and is currently bumping all-time highs. “If anyone pretended they had all the answers, no one would have believed it anyways,” she says of this tumultuous period. “Because no one knew what was going to happen next.”

When it comes to in-demand skills in the workplace, you might have read about buzzy ones like blockchain, or cloud computing, or UX design. But leadership experts say it’s empathy—the ability to listen, relate, and understand what employees are experiencing—that has separated good leaders from great ones during the pandemic, and may hold the key to keeping employees engaged during what’s been termed the “Great Resignation.”

The positive results of an empathic approach are undeniable: In a 2021 Empathy in Business survey by consulting giant EY, 89% say empathy leads to better leadership, 85% say it boosts productivity, and 87% say it increases levels of trust among employees and leaders.

The issue appears especially important to younger employees. According to the 2021 State of Workplace Empathy survey from benefits administration firm Businessolver, 90% of Gen Z respondents say they are more likely to stay with an empathic employer.

“Companies are paying attention to empathy because they have to,” says Jamil Zaki, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of The War for Kindness. “Frankly, they should have been doing so all along, because there are decades of evidence that empathic organizations benefit in all sorts of ways—employees are happier, healthier, more productive.

“The pandemic has made this issue much more vital. People are struggling in so many different ways, and organizations have to understand that. Because if employees don’t feel seen and heard, they can just vote with their feet, and go someplace else,” he says. That’s not just conjecture. The EY survey found that 54% of people had actually left a previous employer because it wasn’t empathic about their work struggles, and 49% because there was a lack of empathy for their personal lives.

Can empathy be learned?

Of course, understanding the importance of empathy is one thing. Having it actually take root in a company—and its people—is quite another. Since it touches on issues of emotion, vulnerability, and mental health, it can be extremely challenging to address in a workplace environment.

On the one hand you have leaders, who may not be comfortable expressing vulnerability because of how they might be perceived. In the Businessolver survey, 68% of CEOs said they feared they would be less respected if they show empathy—a shocking 31-point rise from the previous year.

On the other hand you have employees, who are often skeptical that the company is interested in their welfare, and don’t feel that they are truly in a safe space to discuss or reveal such issues. In fact in the EY survey, 46% of employees said they thought their companies’ efforts at promoting empathy were dishonest.

That makes creating a culture of workplace empathy a tricky business. At the root of the whole discussion is one key question: Is empathy more of a trait, in the sense of someone either naturally having it, or not? Or is it more of a skill, in the sense of something that may be improved, like a muscle that grows stronger with repeated use?

“One hundred percent it is something that can be changed and developed over time,” says Peter Bregman, an executive coach and CEO of Bregman Partners who has written on empathy for the Harvard Business Review. “I’ve done it, and I’ve seen it. In fact once that skill is developed, it becomes hard not to empathize with people.”

Academic studies bear out Bregman’s assertion that empathy is something malleable, and not forever fixed. In one famous German study, the ReSource Project, participants who went through months of mindfulness training ended up exhibiting greater empathy as a result.

Via scenarios like role-playing and experience-sharing, people can learn how to see from another’s perspective—and also learn how to better express that empathy. Writes Stanford’s Zaki, in his review of the work in the field: “Psychologists have generated a number of interventions that successfully build empathy.”

Of course if empathy can be built up, the opposite can also be true—that it can be torn down. If one is under extreme stress or pressed for time, for instance, the inclination or ability to empathize with others can be degraded.

In that sense, our frazzled and fractious modern era hasn’t been helpful for empathy. American college students actually reported lower degrees of empathy between 1979 and 2009, according to Sara Konrath, director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

That, plus the notable rise in mental health issues, could be indicators of deep societal struggles with burnout—which the COVID era has evidently made much worse.

Empathy boost: Proactive steps

The good news here is that empathy is something that can be worked on—especially when one’s company is highlighting it, and rewarding it, as a key ingredient of a healthy workplace culture.

So how exactly can a firm develop or promote attitudes of empathy? That is no small challenge, especially if you are talking about an organization of thousands of employees, spread around countless workplaces, which may have never treated this issue as an element of company culture before.

It might take the form of workplace training—perhaps as part of broader diversity and inclusion initiatives—where employees break into smaller groups and talk about the challenges they are facing, listening to one another without agendas. EY found that employees were responsive to multiple avenues where they could communicate their struggles—in the form of one-on-one meetings, or requests for anonymous feedback, or team-building exercises, or workshops about open discussions.

“The way I have taught empathy in the past, it’s maybe 10% teaching and 90% experiential,” says Bregman. “You create a situation in which they are empathizing: sitting across from someone who is taking the risk to be vulnerable, and giving them your full attention.”

Empathy can also manifest in the form of official company policies, which demonstrate that the firm is being responsive to what its employees are going through. In the Businessolver survey, for instance, 93% of respondents said that the ability to work from home reflected an empathic employer.

Or it might take the form of conscious modeling at the top, but that is where it can be challenging for some leaders to get on board. After all, old-school CEOs were hardly ever trained or encouraged to share that side of themselves. But without that kind of high-level example—of someone in a position of power acknowledging their own challenges, reaching out, and being supported by colleagues—lower-level employees are unlikely to expose their own vulnerabilities in the same way.

Of course, the overarching question here is whether organizational empathy is a one-time response to a unique global crisis, or whether it is here to stay. That, too, may help decide whether leaders and employees remain suspicious of it, or commit to it on a deeper level.

“I think moving to a world of more vulnerable leaders is an ongoing trend,” says Zoetis’s Peck. “I don’t think empathy is something just COVID-related, and that things will go back to the way they were before. I think things have changed forever.

“Some people might look at the issue of empathy as soft,” she notes. “But it’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the right thing for results.”

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This story is part of Fortune’s Leadership Report on the issues and trends reshaping the C-suite now.