Elizabeth Rieveley Of MeridianLink: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Empathy as Table Stakes: Finally, empathy isn’t optional; it’s essential. As leaders, we must recognize that empathy isn’t a soft skill to be deployed selectively. It’s the foundation upon which effective leadership rests. When leaders lead with empathy, they create a ripple effect. Others observe and learn, and soon, empathy becomes the norm — an unwritten rule that guides interactions, decisions, and organizational success.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Rieveley.

Elizabeth Rieveley has served as Chief People Officer of MeridianLink, Inc. since April 2022. Prior to that, she was Executive Vice President of Human Resources at SMS Assist. Ms. Rieveley brings more than 15 years of experience building human capital strategies to support and grow businesses across a variety of industries, including technology, manufacturing, biotechnology, and financial services. She is skilled at creating collaborative environments for in-person and remote teams while connecting individual divisions within larger companies under a united umbrella. Ms. Rieveley holds a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Tampa.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series.  Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

The career trajectory that led me to Human Resources is pretty unique. I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. I always thought I wanted to be a teacher, but as I got closer to graduation, I realized that wasn’t the right path for me. So, I started looking around for new opportunities and found myself applying for a summer internship with a small manufacturing company in Eastern Pennsylvania. I was accepted into this internship program in a HR role and loved the work right from the beginning. I found HR to be engaging, fulfilling, and something that came naturally to me.

After that summer program ended, I knew I wanted to work in HR for the rest of my career. I spent a year looking for another role in the industry, but found it to be somewhat challenging given my lack of advanced education in the field. Luckily, I kept in contact with colleagues from my manufacturing internship and was able to leverage those relationships into a full-time position with the company in Florida. I spent four and a half years there, developing relationships and skills that would be invaluable to me throughout the rest of my career.

After leaving that job, I worked in a number of increasingly senior HR positions at a variety of science, finance, and technology companies until I joined MeridianLink as Chief People Officer in April 2022.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

There are many interesting stories from my time working in HR, but one that comes to mind is the behind the scenes of working at some cool companies. The best part of being in HR is the ability to work across different industries. I love learning and connecting with my employees, so learning what they do is something that is so fun for me. As an HR professional, I need to learn what our employees do on a daily basis, and the efforts the company takes to best support everyone. 

My first HR role was at a beverage manufacturer company, and I supported the team at the concentrate manufacturing facility. It was so fun to support the scientists by shadowing them from time to time. I also had the chance to go on the factory floor to see how the concentrate for juice, soda, and energy drinks is made. One of the coolest things I took away from this experience was learning about how taste, smell, and vision are all important parts of what you eat and drink. We had to adhere to strict policies of not bringing food into the lab and avoiding outside scents from contaminating the space. In this role, our team did taste tests and blind taste tests all the time, where we would try soda without a color. The purpose of this exercise was to see how we would identify the flavors without its coloring, something that I struggled greatly to do. While I was happy to participate in these taste tests from time to time, I learned that I do not have a future as a “super taster,” someone who can blindly identify smells and tastes, and should continue my career as an HR professional. Nevertheless, it was a great experience! 

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each? 

While I’ve absorbed so much in my career, listening, especially in an HR role, is without a doubt the cornerstone of my success, and it’s something that I’ve learned the importance of, even before I began my career. During my graduate school days, as part of an introductory class, we were tasked with assigning animals to our group members. Each person had to explain why they were assigned that particular animal. I found myself designated as a rabbit, primarily due to my attentive nature—symbolized by those big rabbit ears. Little did I know that this playful exercise would foreshadow my future career path.

As I embarked on my journey in HR, I realized the immense value of fostering supportive environments as well. It became evident that sitting back, absorbing information, and truly understanding the needs and concerns of employees were critical. HR is a multifaceted function, requiring empathy and compassion. Listening is the first step toward fostering a supportive work environment.

In my role, I engage in conversations across the organization on a daily basis. Regardless of the department or job function, I’m regularly in communication with our employees located all across the country. I’ve had to become fully comfortable with leading conversations to distill themes from across the organization and gain a pulse to what MeridianLink employees are feeling. This insight allows me to align HR programs and business strategies effectively.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?  I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

No matter the industry, I think all leaders can relate to the difficulty of making touch choices for the betterment of an organization. In one of my earlier roles, I was tasked with choosing a new human resources information system (HRIS) for my company. There are so many systems available to us as HR professionals, all with unique pros and cons. As Chief People Officer, I was tasked with going through a very lengthy RFP process to narrow down the systems from eight to three. Each organization checked the boxes for what our organization was looking for, but I ultimately had to make the challenging decision. This weighed on me, because it’s something that directly impacts everyone in the company: every employee will use the system almost daily, and if done correctly, these systems can provide us with sufficient data and insights to make us all more efficient. 

I learned a great deal about making decisions and owning them through this process. Even though not everyone at the company was going to be happy given personal preferences towards one of the systems, I was set in my decision having met with stakeholders across the business and leading a well-rounded review process. Regardless of the software we went with, either would be a strong choice for our organization, and I had to focus on what was best for the company at large, rather than individual preferences. 

Big projects like this have taught me why it’s so necessary to bring in relevant stakeholders early in the process to successfully manage a project and communicate the solution to a team. One of my greatest strengths is the ability to problem solve and navigate challenging situations in the workplace, and I owe a lot of that skill to projects like this. 

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview.  Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

In a leadership context, I’d define empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings, experiences, and perspectives of those I work with. It goes beyond mere sympathy or compassion; it involves actively putting oneself in someone else’s shoes and considering their emotions and needs. Empathy is a vital trait for leaders today, especially in the current work environment, for several reasons.

First, as younger generations join the workforce, organizations are seeing the trend that employees are increasingly prioritizing social aspects when choosing a job. They seek workplaces where they feel understood, valued, and supported, rather than just choosing a job based on its salary, title, or location. Leaders who demonstrate empathy create an environment that resonates with these values, making their organizations more attractive to talent.

Second, diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DI&B) have become central themes in modern workplaces. Empathetic leaders recognize the unique challenges faced by individuals from diverse backgrounds, and will actively promote an inclusive culture by acknowledging and addressing these challenges, fostering a sense of belonging to ensure everyone’s voice is heard.

Third, weaving empathy into leadership practices is essential. During my regular 1:1 check-ins with my direct reports, I make a conscious effort to begin and end these meetings by having personal conversations, rather than only discussing the current priorities the team is working on. We’re real people with real interests, rather than just being employees of our organization. These 1:1 connections between my direct reports and myself are so important, because I can better understand who my employees are as individuals. I even keep a note in my phone about each employee’s personal interests, so when it comes time for employee appreciation or the holiday season, I can offer them a personal gift to demonstrate my gratitude for the hard work I see year round. 

Flexibility is another way empathy manifests. Empathetic leaders understand that team members have multifaceted lives. We’re not just employees: we’re parents, siblings, and friends, and sometimes, life can be chaotic. At MeridianLink, a fully hybrid organization, work can happen anytime, from anywhere. Rather than sticking to such a rigid schedule, being an empathetic leader looks like acknowledging that someone’s schedule may need to be shifted to work different hours. For me, I focus on ensuring team members can get their work done, rather than making sure they adhere to a traditional 9-5 workday. 

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

In a previous role, my team and I faced a heartbreaking situation when one of our colleagues passed away unexpectedly. Following the immediate devastation, I knew that we needed to offer employees a response that went beyond a professional realm.

As soon as we could, we connected with the entire company. We held a forum where employees could share their condolences, offer love to the friends of the employee, and focus on how we wanted to honor our team member who had passed away. This initial communication set the tone for what followed.

To show genuine care and empathy, we took several actions as a company that extended beyond words of condolences:

  • Work Can Wait: The leadership team and I assured our employees that work was secondary during this difficult time, and encouraged everyone to prioritize their well-being. Whether that meant rescheduling meetings or even taking time off, I wanted it to be known that the team should feel empowered to do whatever they felt was best.
  • Open Communication: I encouraged our team to feel comfortable reaching out to me directly if they needed anything. Whether during the workday or otherwise, I made myself available to provide support and be there to simply listen. 
  • PTO for Funeral Attendees: For team members who felt compelled to attend the funeral, we granted additional PTO and even covered travel expenses (if the employee was joining from out of state). The decision was one I felt strongly about, because it showed that the company stood with them during their time of mourning. 

Ultimately, there is no such thing as a “work-life balance to me.” Life happens, and sometimes it’s painful. As empathetic leaders, we must recognize that someone’s well-being transcends their role within an organization. By offering empathy during these critical moments, we build trust with our employees. They know we genuinely care about their best interests, and that trust pays dividends in the long run.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

Empathetic leaders face a delicate balancing act between acknowledging their team’s emotions and making tough decisions that may not be popular among the full organization. As leaders, we need to work daily to foster trust and authenticity among one another. When leaders have established a foundation of trust, they can navigate this challenge more effectively.

To me, the first step in balancing emotions and making decisions that matter is transparency. As an employee and a leader, I resonate most with those who can openly communicate and share their rationale behind decisions. In my experience, a full team is most likely to respond positively to this approach. And while they may not always agree with the choice, at least they have the understanding behind it. 

Naturally, decisions are not always going to appeal to the masses. Often, we have to make tough calls, and these decisions may not always align or make the team happy. Regardless, acknowledging this responsibility is crucial. Sometimes, all it takes is saying “I know you may not agree, but here’s the reasoning behind it, we have to move forward.”

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

While both are deeply important, empathy and sympathy are fundamentally different. Simply put, sympathy is a surface-level feeling, an acknowledgement, or a recognition. Empathy, on the other hand, puts yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand why they feel a certain way.

For example, in my prior role when one of the employees at my company suddenly passed away, a sympathetic response would have been to say “I’m so sorry for your loss, I’m thinking of you in this difficult time.” While that can sometimes be a sufficient response, an empathetic response (and the one we took) requires action. We took the necessary steps to make sure that our team members felt supported and were able to mourn however they needed.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

As leaders, we often get bogged down by work-related tasks, rather than taking a moment to recognize the work we’re doing and the value that our team brings. That’s why the team at MeridianLink intentionally incorporates surprises throughout the year that aren’t directly related to our work. One example of this (and one of my favorite stories!) was when we surprised our team by bringing a goat (you heard that correctly) to a meeting. We partnered with a nonprofit, rescue organization that rents out animals for company events and meetings to lift the spirits of teams during an otherwise busy time! It was a great reminder to pause, breathe, and incorporate something fun to the workday. 

One of my personal and professional philosophies is to take the time to recognize employees for all of the positive contributions they make on a daily basis, and I’ve found that it really goes a long way. A simple thank-you note or public acknowledgment of their hard work can make a significant impact. And I don’t limit it just to my direct reports: if I hear from another team member across departments that someone’s work has really excelled, I’m quick to highlight it. Empathy goes beyond celebrating professional wins, and celebrates the human side of the work we do. 

Empathy often trickles down from leadership. As an HR professional, I’ve noticed how my style influences others, since the team tends to look to myself and other members of our executive leadership team to gauge our reactions. When I see team members across the company mirroring my leadership approach, I consider it a sign of success, because I know it means they are also leading with empathy. The ripple effect, while it can take time, is what success looks like to me. 

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

Particularly given our remote work structure, there are a set of unique challenges that we face. However, with any challenge comes an opportunity to learn, not only from leadership, but the employees at MeridianLink. 

Especially following the pandemic and a time of isolation, employees greatly value the benefit of connecting in-person with team members. Not having this interaction can hinder team bonding and collaboration efforts. With that in mind, it’s important to be intentional about bringing together a group of employees. We know that our team members want to meet up after work for dinner and happy hours, and we also make a conscious effort to promote co-working with other colleagues in a similar geographic location. We’ve seen the benefit of these initiatives, and we know that it’s something our employees greatly appreciate. 

Unfortunately, remote work can often lack the spontaneity of the “water cooler chats” or impromptu hallway conversations that can be so valuable at the office. Knowing this, our leadership team has scheduled “virtual coffee conversations,” and informal check-ins to foster this sense of community. A meeting during the workday doesn’t have to be a work meeting, but rather, can serve as a chance to bridge the physical distance among team members.

Conducting surveys on a regular basis also means learning what matters most to our employees, and we’ve found that the MeridianLink team appreciates an opportunity to give back to their community. Given that, we’ve begun implementing quarterly volunteer opportunities across the country. Team members choose a local organization where they want to donate their time, and the leadership team helps to facilitate the day of giving back. It goes beyond the day-to-day work, but leaves a lasting impact with our team. 

Elizabeth Rieveley

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

  1. Trust: Empathy is the bedrock of trust within an organization. When leaders consistently demonstrate understanding and compassion, it instills trust throughout the entire team. Employees should feel comfortable believing that what leaders say comes from a place of truth and genuine concern. Trust is essential for collaboration, transparency, and effective decision-making.
  2. Cultural Influence: Empathy doesn’t just exist in isolation; it shapes organizational culture. Culture isn’t merely a buzzword; it’s the collective actions and behaviors exhibited by leaders and employees. When empathy becomes ingrained in an organization’s DNA, it influences how people interact, support one another, and approach challenges. It’s not limited to leaders alone; everyone contributes to this empathetic culture.
  3. Authenticity and Empathy: Authenticity and empathy go hand in hand. When leaders lead with empathy, they create an environment where team members can be their authentic selves. Authenticity can be challenging, especially for leaders who feel pressure to conform to specific stereotypes. As a female leader, I’ve experienced this firsthand. Sometimes, empathy isn’t the default response, but it’s crucial to prioritize it over other approaches.
  4. Compassion: In a prior role, I found myself struggling to assert leadership with my team. The work environment was intense, and there was a lot of yelling during discussions. I then felt compelled to raise my voice in response as a way to establish authority and be seen as a leader. However, it backfired horribly — I felt disconnected from my authentic self. It was a pivotal moment. I could either have continued down the path where I did not feel like I was being professional, or I could choose empathy. I decided that compassion was the only way forward. With the teammate I was having a hard time getting through to, I shared my perspective, not through raised voices, but by telling my story. I explained why I wanted things done a certain way, and emphasized my rationale. It was vulnerable, but it worked. This person listened, even shared their side of the story, and we found common ground. From then on, I vowed never to sacrifice authenticity for authority.
  5. Empathy as Table Stakes: Finally, empathy isn’t optional; it’s essential. As leaders, we must recognize that empathy isn’t a soft skill to be deployed selectively. It’s the foundation upon which effective leadership rests. When leaders lead with empathy, they create a ripple effect. Others observe and learn, and soon, empathy becomes the norm — an unwritten rule that guides interactions, decisions, and organizational success.

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

Some people mistakenly believe that empathy and results are mutually exclusive. They assume that if a leader prioritizes empathy, they might not be focused on achieving outcomes. As an empathetic leader, I find it essential to communicate that both empathy and results can coexist. You can be human, show understanding, and still drive toward organizational goals.

Unfortunately, there are leaders who dismiss empathy as a mere “soft skill.” This perspective undermines its significance, and empathy should be considered a critical leadership skill. It goes beyond being nice; it directly impacts team dynamics, trust, and overall performance. As empathetic leaders, we must advocate for empathy’s value and dispel the notion that it is secondary.

Striking the right balance between authority and empathy can be challenging. Leaders often associate authority with assertiveness, decisiveness, and control. Empathy, on the other hand, requires vulnerability, active listening, and understanding. Finding the sweet spot where empathy enhances authority without compromising effectiveness is an ongoing process.

Finally, empathy isn’t a standalone trait; it permeates through every aspect of leadership. It influences communication, decision-making, conflict resolution, and team dynamics. While this interconnectedness is powerful, it also demands constant awareness. Leaders must consciously infuse empathy into their daily interactions, even when faced with high-pressure situations.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

When I can’t sleep, it’s usually because I’m wondering about how our employees are feeling, and what we can be doing as a leadership team to increase their satisfaction, engagement, and overall well-being at MeridianLink. Much of this stems from a desire for them to want to stay with our organization, grow, and thrive. When employees leave, it impacts team dynamics, productivity, and institutional knowledge.

I wish everyone in the organization — not just our HR team — would actively think about employee well-being. Listening to employees is crucial. Are they telling us how they feel? Do we have the right channels in place? Currently, we conduct regular “stay interviews” and anonymous surveys to gather employee feedback for what we can be doing now, rather than down the line when an employee has already made the decision to leave the organization.

To help make someone’s employee experience at MeridianLink the strongest it can be, I’m constantly thinking through the ways we can do so. Whether it’s finding coworking spaces for our teammates who live in the same area of the country, wellness programs (mental and physical health), or professional development opportunities, I know that retaining top talent requires more than competitive salaries. Rather, it’s about creating an environment where someone feels valued.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Without a doubt, I’d want to create a system in our early education system that values inclusion, learning, and creativity. Equal access to quality education for all children is vital to ensuring we foster a love for learning and develop strong character. The changes in curriculum to bring these positive changes are already present, but there is more work to be done on developing fair and equitable access to quality early childhood education. By focusing on early education, there would be a more equal starting point for all students, and it would help trickle into all other aspects of their lives and opportunities.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.