How Belonging and Empathy Reduce Turnover

People have been leaving their jobs in droves over the past few years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs in December, and a record-breaking 10.9 million jobs were vacant at the end of 2021. This trend doesn’t seem to be leveling off anytime soon either; 43% of the global workforce is likely to consider changing jobs in the coming year, and that number is as high as 52% among Gen-Z and millennials. This “Great Resignation” has made it imperative for businesses to understand why employees are leaving and how to fix it. Unfortunately, many companies assume their employees are quitting for the wrong reasons.

Two factors come readily to mind to explain increases in job turnover: unsatisfactory wages and issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). With the economic bust brought on by the pandemic, and the fact that both women and Black professionals have been leading the charge in resignations since 2021, these assumptions are certainly not unfounded. But companies that have spent time and money ameliorating these issues have not seen as big a return on their investment as they might have expected. 

In the U.S. alone, about $8 billion per year is spent on diversity trainings, and yet there is little to no evidence that these trainings have made companies more diverse. And though the average salary increase has risen 21% from 2021 to 2022, this does not seem to influence turnover intentions much – perhaps because a huge amount of the increase in satisfaction when switching to a higher-paying job, at least 80%, is due to improvements other than wages. The failure of diversity and wage-increase initiatives shows that there is a fundamental mismatch between why companies think their employees are quitting and why they are actually quitting. 

So why are employees leaving their companies now more than ever? To answer this, it can help to empathize with these former employees, to try to understand their feelings and perspective. Walking a mile in their shoes might help us understand the forces pulling them toward other obligations in their life or pushing them away from their current company. Moreover, being more empathetic not only helps us understand why employees are resigning, but could itself help reduce employee turnover. Insights from behavioral science research suggest that cultivating empathy in the workplace – including a sense of belonging among all workers and greater emotional intelligence among managers – is vital for employee retention.

Employees Crave an Empathetic Workplace

An empathetic workplace is one of the top needs of working professionals, who are keenly aware when their company lacks empathy. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) surveyed nearly 2,500 U.S. workers to better understand how they experience empathy in the workplace – and how this impacts their employers. Critically, 97% of those surveyed believed empathy is essential for a healthy workplace culture. What’s more, employees who rated their organization low in empathy were also more than twice as likely to have actively searched for a new job in the past six months. Another survey of workers conducted by Businessolver found that 72% of employees would consider leaving their current company if it displayed less empathy, but 92% said they would be more likely to stay with their current company if it empathized with their needs more.

These findings highlight a key insight: company culture has a massive impact on employee retention. In one study that analyzed data from over 34 million U.S. workers’ online profiles, toxic corporate culture was far and away the top reason employees left their companies – over ten times more important for predicting attrition than compensation. The biggest factors contributing to toxic workplace culture all orbit around a lack of empathy: failure to promote DEI, workers feeling disrespected, and unethical behavior, to name a few.

If you are feeling dismayed by your workplace’s lack of empathy, take heart! The good news is that companies can improve their culture of empathy with some relatively minor tweaks. Research in behavioral science tells us that active trainings designed to increase empathy in business settings really do work. Even simple adjustments can help cultivate a more empathetic company culture.

Two Ways to Increase Workplace Empathy

There are many different expressions of empathy, such as perspective taking, active listening, and validating someone’s feelings. Behavioral science research reveals that two components in particular can drastically reduce turnover and are relatively easy to implement in the workplace: a sense of belonging and emotional intelligence.

#1 – Help Employees Feel Like They Belong

We all want to feel included – in our personal lives, and also at work. When employees feel that they belong, everyone benefits. Research conducted by Harvard Business Review with BetterUp found that high belonging was linked to a whopping 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. For a 10,000-person company, this represents annual savings of more than $52 million. Unfortunately, many companies fail to make their employees feel included, resulting in greater attrition. One survey’s findings suggest that nearly half of employees in the U.S. have left a job because they didn’t feel like they belonged, and over a third have quit because they had difficulty connecting with colleagues. 

Behavioral science research reveals a similar trend. Even more so than outright harassment or bullying, social ostracism in the workplace predicted worse employee wellbeing, less employee engagement, and higher turnover rates three years later. BetterUp also conducted a behavioral experiment with over 2,000 live participants to measure the costs of exclusion. Workers were assigned to a team with two other “participants” (bots programmed to act like teammates) to play a collaborative virtual ball-toss game. Included workers had teammates that consistently threw them the ball, whereas excluded workers were rarely tossed the ball. After this, workers completed a simple task where they could earn money for their entire team. Again and again, excluded participants put less effort into the task than included participants, even though it meant sacrificing their own earnings as well. Excluding others causes them to give less effort to their teams.

So how do we help employees feel like they belong? One easy way to do this is to encourage employees to discuss common experiences and share their stories. A study of 9-1-1 dispatchers tested a six-week email intervention that did just this. Workers who participated in the intervention were sent a weekly email from a supervisor or department leader that contained two key elements: a work-related story from another dispatcher, and a prompt that encouraged workers to reflect on and anonymously share a positive professional experience their peers might relate to. The results were astounding: resignation rates were cut by half just four months after the intervention concluded. When workers had a platform to give advice, share common experiences, and reflect on how their professional experiences could support their peers, their sense of belonging grew stronger, and turnover decreased in the process.

Key Takeaway: Give employees opportunities to share common experiences with each other 

#2 – Cultivate Emotionally Intelligent Leadership

Most organizations pick leaders or managers in part because they demonstrate general intelligence or competence. But a key type of intelligence often overlooked here is emotional intelligence. An emotionally intelligent person exhibits awareness, understanding, control, and expression of their emotions in interpersonal contexts. Employees at all levels can benefit from improving their emotional intelligence, but research shows that the emotional intelligence of team leaders is directly related to their workers’ likelihood of staying with their company. About 23% of employees’ engagement with their work is influenced by their sense of their direct supervisor’s emotional intelligence. This is in part because organizational leaders set the tone for the emotional culture of the entire workplace. In one study, managers with lower emotional intelligence were also more likely to cultivate a negative, unempathetic organizational culture. As a result, employees of these managers were 38% more likely to intend to resign in the next six months.

Improving managers’ emotional intelligence may seem like no small feat, but a few simple nudges can encourage leaders to be more aware, in control, and expressive of their feelings. One way to do this is to encourage managers to use more emotionally intelligent language when they communicate with their team. One study found that when supervisors used supportive, empathetic language and emphasized the unique value of each employee to contribute to their organization’s mission, this fostered a more positive organizational culture. Whether or not supervisors used this sort of language accounted for 30% of employees’ feelings of connectedness to the organization. Understanding and encouraging communications from leaders can radically improve workers’ relationship to their organization.

Another way to cultivate a more emotionally intelligent workplace is to prompt people to write about their feelings surrounding their work. Researchers in one experiment used this technique and tested whether it helped workers feel more in control and aware of their emotions. Participating employees wrote about their feelings and thoughts connected to their last workday or an especially important workday in the past for 20 minutes a day over a three-day period. The prompt encouraged workers to reflect in writing on how they could effectively perceive, use, understand, and regulate emotions in themselves and others in workplace contexts. Two weeks later, employees who participated in the intervention scored 15% higher on emotional intelligence metrics compared to employees who wrote about neutral, non-work experiences. The intervention also reduced reported experiences of workplace hostility and exclusionary behavior, showing that emotional intelligence can cultivate a culture of belonging, which, as we’ve discussed, is critical for reducing turnover.

Key Takeaway: Encourage leaders (and team members) to reflect on, write about, and communicate their work-related emotions with empathy and understanding

The Bottom Line

Creating a workplace of empathy pays off for businesses. The top 10 companies in the 2015 Global Empathy Index increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings. The virtues of empathy are even more pronounced when it comes to reducing the costs associated with high turnover and low employee engagement. According to a Businessolver survey, 60% of employees in the U.S. would be willing to take slightly less pay, and 77% would be willing to work longer hours, if their employer showed empathy, but 78% would leave an employer for equal pay if the other company was empathetic.

Research in behavioral science shows that companies can make their workplace more empathetic in two key ways: promoting a greater sense of belonging among employees and higher emotional intelligence among leaders. These two components of an empathetic workplace can be improved with simple but effective practices. Giving workers the space to share and discuss common experiences can generate a greater sense of belonging and connection with their coworkers and the company. Encouraging management to use empathetic language in their team communications helps workers feel respected and valued, and prompting employees at all levels to reflect on and write about their feelings surrounding their work helps everyone be more aware and in control of how their emotions impact others in the workplace.

It may seem daunting to try to change your business’s entire culture to one of empathy. But small interventions and changes like the ones mentioned above can go a long way in service of this goal, while dropping turnover rates in the process – a nice side-effect to making your company a place where everyone feels they are included and understood.

Ready to increase Empathy?

Empathable uses immersive design to improve empathy in teams of all sizes

A Path Towards An Empathic Culture

Here’s an interesting statistical coincidence.

In 2021, a year with a 57% turnover rate (according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics), 57% of people who quit their jobs did so because of their direct managers.

What’s going on with management? Considering that toxic culture is ten times more likely to predict turnover than compensation rates, (according to the MIT Sloan Review) it should be clear that a lack of empathy is contributing in no small way to the great resignation. 

After all, 97% of employees believe empathy is essential for a healthy workplace culture (Society for Human Resource Management). When there is a strong culture of empathy, this leads to:

  • A 56% increase in job performance
  • A 50% drop in turnover risk
  • A 75% reduction in sick days.

Designing empathic leadership programs is multifaceted. We at Empathable with some of the top minds in their fields to understand how to ‘experientialize’ empathy well. 

So there’s plenty to talk about when it comes to designing a pathway to empathic culture, but today I want to focus on an easy takeaway that you can begin to apply the moment you finish reading this.

DEI needs to stop giving people the impression that their perspectives are wrong. Even when they are.

I’ve led thousands of DEI, Empathy, and Belonging trainings. And I’ve tried countless times to tell team members at a company what is right and wrong, be it their approach to inclusive terminology, their understanding of implicit bias, or the way they consider their own privilege. I have told people flat out, politely and not, that they’re wrong. 

I have also many times in training tried as empathically, gently, and graciously as possible to help people see another perspective when their own perspective might unknowingly contain harmful biases towards their marginalized colleagues.

I’ve emerged on the other side of this experience with the realization that Empathy, Belonging, or DEI trainings that attempt to tell people what to think, or that they’re wrong, simply do not work. Or at least, not often enough to make it worth it. 

So I’ve stopped entirely. I do almost nothing when these harmful perspectives are shared. And I think this approach within training, can be revolutionary.

In our immersive experiential trainings, we share real moments in real people’s lives. Once in a while, a participant in a training will sincerely state, with genuine intentions, something that sounds like this:

“We all have a fair chance. Why should employees of color receive special treatment?”

“By talking about George Floyd and racism at work, aren’t we making it worse?”

“It’s hard for me to remember someone’s pronouns. It feels like that’s asking a lot.”

These are statements I still hear with new clients – and I no longer correct them.

If this seems highly contradictory to most trainers and to the idea of being an advocate, I get that. You might even be outraged by the thought that we shouldn’t correct such statements – and that outrage would be very understandable. After all, letting harmful viewpoints slide can feel like being complicit in upholding the attitudes of unjust and inequitable systems.

Our journey at Empathable has led us to an understanding of the distinction between a non-response and simply being passive. It’s entirely possible for them to be one and the same, but here’s what I do to make sure they’re not. 

I let other members of their team in the training who are different from them share their own perspectives. We’ve designed our experiences to enact this diverse perspective sharing without us having to ask, making it voluntary, which works very well. When it’s a homogenous group of people, I’ll share the perspective of other diverse people I’ve met, being explicit that I’m not implying this perspective is more valid than theirs.

Then I wait. 

Most of the time, this results in them coming to a realization themselves, on their own, in their own time. It works like a charm. 

We may be one of the only DEI, Belonging, and Empathy programs out there that doesn’t tell people they’re wrong. I’m reminded of a statement by the renowned psychologist and relationship expert Esther Perel: “You can be right, or you can be married.”

I also think about the social scientific understanding that it’s important to create space for uncertainty when encouraging greater interest in the perspectives of others, and what many think of as “empathy.” When we tell people they’re wrong, we can eliminate the opportunity for uncertainty to develop into curiosity. 

In their paper Interest Development and Its Relation to Curiosity, psychologists Suzanne Hidi and K. Ann Renninger define curiosity as “the motivation to close a knowledge gap driven by uncertainty.” They also state, “when an existing, more developed interest initiates […] curiosity, continued engagement (and information search) is likely.”

Practically speaking, we can understand through our own life experiences that people aren’t always ready to hear the things we’re saying to them, and trying to convince them of a belief that contradicts their experience will often lead them to shut down. The dangerous result is that they check out of continued learning.

Why is being told we’re wrong so harmful to learning in general?

In the theory of experiential learning, first developed by David Kolb in 1984 (Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development), Kolb argues four steps occur every time we learn something new: experiencing, reflecting on the experience, learning from the experience, and acting based on what you’ve learned. The theory also suggests that someone can enter or exit at any stage, but for meaningful learning to occur, all four stages must be experienced.

Each of the above steps can require painstaking mental awareness, which explains why major shifts can be so difficult. Simply put, it takes a lot of work to discover something new.

Being told we’re wrong can be particularly harmful in DEI work. In a paper entitled “Against comfort: Political implications of evading discomfort,” Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic states, “We are drawn to people in whose company we feel comfortable and avoid situations and people that make us uncomfortable… visceral gut feelings like discomfort are not merely private emotional experiences but in a certain sense collective and public.”

Being told we’re wrong is an uncomfortable feeling. This discomfort can be tangled up in larger social topics like race and gender, so when someone’s viewpoint is challenged, this can have a collective burden attached to it. This discomfort can at times tap into and represent a widely held cultural misunderstanding. In other words, the individual who suggests that talking about George Floyd and racism is just making the situation worse isn’t only speaking for themselves; they’re speaking for a collective discomfort they have experienced, consciously or not, prior to the moment you find them in. So in a sense, you’re not arguing with an individual’s discomfort in a particular moment –  you’re trying to take on a collective burden this person doesn’t even realize they’re carrying.

Instead, when we allow space for what they have to say, our lack of pushback allows them to feel their worldview is more connected to ours. This concept is the backbone of empathetic learning. When we let the person know that we hear what they’re saying, or even thank them for sharing, we are building a bridge between our two perspectives. This can often lead to a shift – perhaps not immediately, but later on in the experience they might mention something that they learned, something that led them to feel there was greater nuance to a topic and caused them to revisit their earlier viewpoint.

By the end of our sessions, or in follow-ups, people will come back and say things like,

“I was talking with a Black colleague after the training, and I asked her her perspective, which made me realize something I didn’t before.”


“I didn’t realize how easy it can be to correct myself when I get someone’s pronouns wrong.”

You’ll notice that in those two statements, two things have happened:

  1. People are learning through their own life experiences. These experiences are necessary to assimilate the new perspectives they’ve encountered within our immersive learning program.
  2. When they self-correct, they don’t actually verbalize that they were wrong to begin with. But they’ve learned and become more empathetic.

People are much more comfortable teaching themselves than being told what to do. The book, How People Learn, put out by The Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, describes this as the power of intrinsic motivation – a process where people are motivated to learn out of their own curiosity. The most impactful learning occurs not in didactic environments, where the  teacher imparts knowledge to the student, but where students are able to arrive at the knowledge themselves. By validating participants’ emotions and opinions, you can offer a comfortable place for them to explore diversity and reach their own conclusions. 

Of course, we’re not advocating for people not to speak up when a colleague says something unintentionally racist, sexist, or genderist. In our theory of change on shifting organizational bias, we talk about how important it is to have two people in every room speaking up. But in these moments, the person speaking up is not a trainer, but a colleague.

Allowing empathy to emerge is especially powerful when it occurs in an immersive experience. Rather than being told what is right or wrong, participants are asked to see another perspective. This observational lens allows them to more easily fill in the space between their subjective truth and that which they are experiencing. 

We once held a program at a municipality in the south. During an immersive experience around the idea of taking and holding physical space, we shared the real-life example of a white person not moving out of the way for a person of color on the sidewalk. Afterward, her companion, a Black woman, pushed her way through a couple taking up the whole sidewalk, and said,

“Watch where you’re going”

Then to her friend, whose shoes you’re walking in as a participant, she said,

“You see, it’s important to take up space. Because you do belong here.”

After the experience, a white participant spoke up immediately and said, “Well, I think that was just rude! I move out of the way for people all the time.” 

It would have been tempting here to develop some racial context around their comment to explain what they didn’t understand. Instead, we just gave space for the viewpoint to exist, free of our own contextualization. 

A week later, during a follow-up, the same person came back and said,“I still don’t know how I feel about that experience, I still think it was rude, but I do notice it’s changed the way I take up space on the sidewalk. I’m much more aware of it now.”

They came back with greater clarity on how their reality intersects with those around them because they were given room to connect the dots themselves. 

When we’re not very familiar with a topic, it will almost always take us longer to process information. Our lab director, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book, Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain, tells us, “The most expensive tasks that brains do are (1) moving your body and (2) learning something new. They have a metabolic cost that may feel unpleasant. So, feeling bad doesn’t always mean that something bad happened. You might just be doing something really hard.”

A hard thing, like an inner revolution of the biased tyranny of the mind in a well-meaning colleague: well, that might take, at the very least, letting them sleep on it.

How we can make radical change, without changing the radicals

A theoretically revolutionary take on how to approach organizational DEI, called ‘Two In The Room’

We are at a time of history when we are told that to move forward, we must bring the two most extreme edges together, pulling them towards the middle through dialogue.

That when dialogue meets in the middle, and the ends of the political spectrum listen to each other, depolarization will occur.

In reality, we haven’t seen that happen. In fact, we see it only polarizes us further.

But what about the middle that already exists? Those who, in their hearts, want inclusion and belonging for all. They just don’t know how to make it happen.

Our diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders have done everything they could to give the middle that knowledge, through facts, statistics, and exercises.

But when we asked more than 100 DEI directors in organizations across the country what their biggest challenge is, we consistently hear that after all of those trainings, they’re not seeing people apply that knowledge in their teams and communities.

And so by looking at our nation’s complicated strategy in defeating racism, speaking with the brightest researchers on bias, and the science of emotions, we came up with a clear starting point for change. This starting point is actionable, can change lives, and can be represented in one powerful easy to remember phrase:

TWO IN THE ROOM. Specifically, two people in every room who are comfortable and willing to speak up for the rights of others.

Two in the Room is the basis for our theory of change — we can make radical change without needing to change the radicals.

What is the foundation of a great team?

We live in a world of teams — our community groups, our families, our classrooms. Our corporations and organizations are made up of teams. We may think we know what makes a team great. But do we?

Google wondered the same thing. In 2015, the company conducted a study of their 150 teams known as “Project Aristotle.” Rather than similar educational backgrounds or interests, or the perfect blend of introverts and extroverts, it was the rituals and unspoken rules that bonded the team members hold valuable, i.e. “how the team worked together.” Google’s research revealed that the most important element of a successful team was psychological safety. As defined by Harvard Business School Professor Amy C. Edmondson in her book The Fearless Organization, psychological safety is “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” Team members can have ideas and take the risks that often lead to innovation, and do so while staying part of the whole.

That foundation of psychological safety leads to healthy dependability and a sense of purpose and self-determination, the clarity necessary to achieve key point indicators, a sense of purpose, higher job satisfaction, employee retention, higher boosts in productivity and revenue.

Here’s the catch: We do not believe that you can have a psychologically safe team that does not feel inclusive. You’ve likely already experienced this: You’re in a planning meeting with colleagues, and someone on the team makes a sexist comment. If this is met with awkward silence, sharing ideas becomes less comfortable. If someone tries to manage the conversation because you’re out of time, people will start showing up less consistently. If someone sides with everyone because they think that it’s empathetic to avoid conflict — because they lack the point of view to see how a sexist comment reflects the systemic bias embedded in our organizational cultures — this will also destroy psychological safety. Without inclusivity, the loss of psychological safety results in the loss of dependability, impact, and ultimately, success.

Where are our teams today?

We are not a country of binaries, such as racists and non-racist, sexists and non-sexist. Instead, we’re all somewhere on a spectrum of bias about particular issues and identities. At one end of the spectrum are the advocates, already outspoken against bias. At the other end, there are explicitly biased people who think the world is a meritocracy, and say everyone has a fair chance it’s just about what you put into it. In the very large middle, there are three groups:

  • almost allies, those who lack the experiences and thus, the exposure to apply the DEI tools they’ve been given,
  • those who are quite biased though less explicitly so, and
  • those who mean well and may recognize their biases but have no idea how to change.

Imagine that each of these groups are represented by five people in a room at work, and perhaps you’re one of them. Our tendency is to focus energy and attention on Person A, “The Problem,” because they can create the most outrage, as well as the most paperwork for human resources departments. Because implicit bias is both historical and environmental, the chances of moving Person A towards the inclusive end of the spectrum is difficult. A 2019 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that “residents of counties more dependent on slave labor in 1860 display greater implicit bias measured up to 156 years later.”

Bias can be viewed as a wave in a football stadium. If a section of the stadium across from you begins the wave, it’s more likely that you’ll stand up if those around you stand up as well. Implicit bias is much the same, according to Heidi A. Vuletich (Indiana University Bloomington) and B. Keith Payne (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill): “Implicit bias is a social phenomenon that passes through individuals like ‘the wave’ passes through fans in a stadium. Rather than a property of individuals, it may more properly be considered a property of social contexts.”

Then, what do we do next? We look all the way to the left, and say ‘help us solve our problem’ to the DEI groups, and to the ERG’s. Now we’re all aware of the problematic nature of asking the most victimized and marginalized to solve an organization’s problem.

In a study of nearly 600 finalists for university teaching positions, if there was only one woman in the candidate pool, she had no chance of being hired. If there were two or more women in the candidate pool, “the status quo changed, resulting in a woman…becoming the favored candidate.”. Being the only woman in a pool of finalists highlights how different she is from the norm, which makes hiring her a risky choice.

Likewise, when Person E speaks up, it highlights a deviation from the status quo. It takes that second person in the room — Person D — speaking up as well, thereby making Person E’s viewpoint more viable, and shifting the environment. Because bias is environmental, Person C may not yet be ready to speak up, but will want to learn the tools to address his/her biases. As the environment shifts further, Person B may start to recognize his/her biases, and Person A may become less vocal. By helping those in the middle of the spectrum walk in the shoes of others and gain the exposure to apply their knowledge, Person B will become Person C, Person C will become Person D, and even Person A may change their viewpoints because they realize their environment no longer finds it acceptable.

How we create radical change, shifting our teams by focusing on the middle.
Animation by Kinga Ernt

Who is this second person?

How do we find those almost allies — those second people in every room — wanting to become advocates?

Well, on one hand, we know who they are, because many of them have stepped up and said, we want to do more for Black Lives Matter. Many have gone to their ERG’s or their marginalized peers and again, said, ‘tell me what to do to not be racist, sexist, gender non-affirming, ableist, and so on. And so the good news is, the second person is making themselves more visible.

If they are less visible that 20% percent of your organization, not including outspoken advocates, then notice who shows up for voluntary trainings, workshops, or discussions involving race, gender, or sexual orientation.

But this survey shows us how this second person in the room is making up a very significant 1/5th of our organizations, and is not being activated to support DEI efforts effectively.. In this study, Payscale asked 27,000 people in the workforce, two questions. The first question was, in most workplaces, do men and women have equal opportunities? Yes I agree, or no I strongly disagree. The second question was in my workplace, do men and women have equal opportunities?

One in five said, NO, women do not have equal opportunities in most workplaces and NO, also not where I work. These people get it. They get that bias exists, and they also see it environmentally, and are likely the first person in the room, already an outspoken advocate. Three in five people said, Yeah, women have equal opportunities in most workplaces, and YES, also where I work. These people don’t get it. They don’t necessarily even feel or understand the bias existing on national level, and so they’re harder and much more effort to help directly.

The final one in five said, NO, women do not have equal opportunities in most workplaces. But YES, they DO have equal opportunities here, where I work. These folks understand that bias exists; they get the concept, but they lack the point of view to see it environmentally.

But if we can get this second in five to see locally, what they believe nationally, and stand next to the advocate. Then at the next planning meeting, a sexist comment will be met with someone speaking up to say, “I found that remark to be sexist.” Rather than try to manage the conversation, the second person in the room will jump in with, “You know, that bothered me as well. With the few minutes we have left, let’s talk about it as a team.”

That is a team that actually builds their safety and belonging. And a country of teams creating two in the room, comfortable and willing to speak up for the rights of others bends the moral arc of our professional environments.


Two in the Room — How DEI Leaders Can Create Radical Change without Changing the Radicals

Seven steps to revolutionizing your viewpoint on DEI:

1.) Acknowledge that your success is based on a foundation of psychological safety within your teams.

2.) Realize that psychological safety depends on inclusivity.

3.) Your teams are on a spectrum. We’re all aware of the outspoken advocates and the explicit racists, but within the middle, there are the “almost allies,” vital to really moving the culture to be inclusive, yet very difficult to identify. This is because they are hungry to help and armed with facts and information, but are missing the exposure to difference to apply their knowledge. The get it conceptually, but not emotionally, so the culture doesn’t shift.

4.) If this is the group that will shift the middle, and shifting the middle will shift the culture, then we need to stop focusing on the explicitly biased people because they have history and environment working against them and are an inefficient use of our efforts. Since environment is a major determinant of bias, they will shift more easily once the middle shifts.

5.) Shifting the middle — and thereby shifting the moral arc of the environment — is all about that almost ally: the second person in the room. The second person in the room understands that bias exists, but lacks the point of view to see it in their own environment.

6.) Getting the second person in the room to become comfortable and willing to speak up for the rights of others is like tapping a finger in the middle of a still lake, and causing a ripple effect that will create ongoing waves of real measurable impact.

7.) Almost allies already think about bias. They need to feel and personalize bias to shift.
By having these almost allies walk in the shoes of others, we give them the emotional catalysts and exposure to people who are different than them.

You will create the missing link between their motivation to support marginalized groups and the relatability to marginalized groups necessary to really stand up for them. You will create two people in every room, comfortable and willing to speak up for the rights of others, which will soon become, three of five, four of five, and eventually, your whole organization. Two in the room is what you need to be investing in, catalyzing, and measuring.

And that is how you create radical change.

Edited by Deb Fiscella, May 2021

The Unseen Challenge of DEI: Inclusion vs the Ticking Clock

There is a huge invisible challenge facing DEI today. That challenge may best be described as Inclusion vs. the Ticking Clock

We know from over 300 one-on-one conversations with DEI directors all over the country that while teams are learning the facts of DEI, they’re not applying the knowledge to create an inclusive environment. What accounts for this?

Attached to this question is a huge Ticking Clock: We need to act sooner than we might think. To quote the poet Prageeta Sharma:

“Americans have an expiration date on race the way they do for grief. At some point, they expect you to get over it.”

As an industry, we’ve been signaling to our teams that improvements in organizational diversity and equity can make up for a lack of improvement in inclusion. In order to take advantage of the momentum of the last two years, leaders need to own up to this. We’re using the word “strategy” to kick the problem down the road. It’s time we picked it up before the country stops paying attention.

Every week, I talk with multiple chief diversity officers (CDOs) at Fortune 500 companies. Recently, I was speaking with a savvy and diligent executive who summed up the above-mentioned problem brilliantly.

She had spent the last few months making phone calls to CDOs at other major organizations, asking how they were measuring inclusion – and coming up short with every phone call. The answer again and again was: “we don’t know how.” This echoed what I’ve been hearing from nearly all of the 300 leaders in DEI I’ve spoken with nationwide. 

According to a Harvard Business Review article from 2012, current DEI training and outcome measurements fail to consider the factors required to create a truly diverse workplace.

The article states: “A study of 829 companies over 31 years showed that diversity training had ‘no positive effects in the average workplace.’ Millions of dollars a year were spent on the training resulting in, well, nothing. Attitudes — and the diversity of the organizations — remained the same.”

Not much has changed since then.

Even in laboratory environments where DEI interventions are conducted as carefully as possible, a recent meta-analysis reviewing 418 such experiments concluded that “much research effort is theoretically and empirically ill-suited to provide actionable, evidence-based recommendations for reducing prejudice.”

The methods we’ve been relying on simply aren’t working in practice.

Since the conversation around diversity outcomes is mostly taking place within businesses and organizations, DEI professionals are creating policies aimed at producing key performance indicators (KPIs) that they can show to the leadership. Typically, this looks like metrics around the number of diverse hires or how effectively the pay gap is closing.

Unfortunately, these data points simply aren’t sufficient.

They don’t speak to the underlying emotions at the core of a diverse workforce: a sense of belonging, willingness to collaborate, or how likely an employee is to stay at the company. As such, inclusion is not moving forward because DEI, as an industry, lacks the ability to generate and communicate the results of its programs in terms of inclusion and belonging.

This issue is not insurmountable, especially when you consider that dozens of tools exist to measure emotional interconnectedness. So what is the roadblock? Why are we having trouble keeping pace? 

Some organizations simply don’t have the bandwidth for anything more than checking the boxes of legal policies and hiring practices. The more nuanced elements of inclusion seem too difficult to apply to the business, so they retreat to more measurable outcomes, such as more diverse teams or reductions in the pay gap.

The problem is, these metrics don’t reflect the reality of those in the workforce.

After Dr. Timnit Gebru’s termination from Google, employees described, in their letter to management, how more diverse hiring cannot erase the discomfort of feeling like they do not belong. Similarly, while efforts to close the pay gap are a positive step forward, if someone feels ostracized from their peers, they won’t be happy or successful in that environment.

As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, notes:

“just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing. And just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not important at all.”

Inclusion is not the vague and unchartable space we think it is. 

There is a lack of understanding around the ability to quantify “softer” measurables, such as empathy and emotions. The DEI community is in a position to tell their organizations that it is quite possible to measure inclusion – they just might not know how to yet.

This missing understanding stems from a lack of interdisciplinary collaboration between DEI strategists and social scientists (eg. neuroscientists and psychologists) who measure emotions and empathy. This collaboration requires investments in academic consultants that go beyond two or three sessions. I would argue that for every three DEI hires in a company, there ought to be one social science position created to support HR and DEI consultants in measuring inclusive mindsets. It’s what many social scientists have dedicated their lives to.

At Empathable, we’ve found that one of the most vital elements of our engagements is the application of an empathy-based measurement framework. This is because empathy is highly learnable – much more than we think. As empathy researcher Jamil Zaki emphasizes, empathy is a muscle that we learn to train, not a skill we’re born with. That means it helps to: 

  • Build consistent habits that foster inclusive mindsets; 
  • Apply quantifiables. These might include self-reported measures and sociometric questions, such as “How likely would you be to take Colleague X out to lunch?” This method was suggested to us by renowned psychologist Sarah Gaither, to measure the growth of in-grouping.

When considering how to quantify changes in empathy, the challenge isn’t finding a system of measurements. It’s having knowledgeable experts who can help you choose and apply the right measurements for a given context. For example, there are many different questionnaire frameworks to measure empathy. According to the Stanford School of Philosophy, these questionnaires highlight various forms of empathy and how it’s understood. The popular Hogan questionnaire focuses on mentally understanding someone else’s emotions:

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With the right minds at the table, such measures could be applied to reimagine the content, frequency, and measurements involved in DEI training. Ultimately, over time, this would lead to an improvement in team performance. 

In a DEI context, where progress and buy-in can feel nearly impossible, tools like this become all the more important. Tying these inclusion measures to business outcomes is the next step, and we’re working on this vigorously.

It’s clear to us that this outcome is possible, and the Ticking Clock confirms its urgency. 

When we deepen the sense of belonging in a group, employees will be inclined to stay at an organization longer. According to research from the University of British Columbia, people who report feeling isolated from their workplace show a stronger intention to quit and lower commitment to the job. By improving a sense of belonging, there will be concrete, visible progress in diversity and equity, and the subsequent organizational improvement in not only retention but also revenue. 

At Empathable, our team uses psychology, neuroscience, and the outer limits of artistic design to create interactive spaces within which to learn. These experiences are designed to promote empathy across perceived “differences,” including socially-constructed divisions such as gender, race, and age. The immersive process helps participants to contextualize their inner biases to the people around them, which increases inclusion.

Schedule a Demo to learn how to invite empathy into your organization.

Special thanks to Anushri Kumar, Savannah Johnson, Deb Fiscella, and David Kessel for their support in writing this article.