HomeSocial Impact HeroesJennifer Baron Of NRC Health: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

Jennifer Baron Of NRC Health: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Empathy fosters a sense of belonging, improved employee experience, and retention. As they say, most people leave their boss, not their organization.

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 Jennifer Baron.

Jennifer Baron is the Chief Experience Officer at NRC Health. Prior to her new role at NRC Health, Baron was the Chief Experience Officer at UC Davis Health, where her primary focus was on elevating the voice of patients and employees, educating on why it matters to be truly patient-centered, and empowering people and teams to deliver great experiences.

Previously, Baron was Executive Director, Experience Design at Indiana University Health where she was responsible for the development and implementation of a multi-year customer experience strategic plan to support the organization’s journey toward consumer and patient centricity.

Baron has been recognized for her work in developing a patient and family feedback model that makes it easy for patients to provide insights and co-design processes impacting care experiences alongside healthcare providers and staff. Baron has 31 years of experience in healthcare, improving access and experiences of both patients and providers. She holds a degree in communications from Ball State University and is a Certified Patient Experience Professional.

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?

My career path was a curvy road. I earned a degree in communications and hadn’t even considered a career in healthcare at first. My first job opportunity, as a new college grad, just so happened to be at a health system to launch its patient contact center. That was my first taste of healthcare, and I fell in love with the industry through that experience. I was then involved in the first pass of patient experience, back when it was considered service excellence.

I later had the opportunity to travel across the state to work with referring physicians and learn about the other side of patient experience, as well as lead a telehealth program for about six years. I recognized there was a lot of opportunity to make healthcare more accessible, affordable, and personalized for patients. With this realization, I transitioned further into the digital space, led customer experience at my prior health system, and decided that this was what I was meant to do. I was then recruited by UC Davis Health as its first chief experience officer.

I am passionate about improving experience for patients, care teams, and the healthcare industry at large for generations to come. In my newest role as chief experience officer at NRC Health, I am excited to connect employee and patient experiences to advance the healthcare landscape.

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

From a career standpoint, the most interesting story is when I moved across the country to start patient experience work at a new health system, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. After starting my position, it took a full 18 months before I saw anyone who I worked with face to face. It was a challenge managing a new role in an uncertain environment, especially as a member of the command center for a health system that I was unfamiliar with at the time. This situation required a lot of empathy from colleagues and leaders — and vice versa. We were all facing situations that were simply not normal. I really engaged in active listening throughout my conversations with colleagues, as I had a lot to learn. I asked about their background, roles, what they love about what they do, and what could be improved at the health system to really connect with them and lean in during these challenging times.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

While I was working at a previous health system, we were one of the first two systems in the country to launch NRC Health’s real-time feedback program in 2017. We implemented the platform across every care setting, and it was monumental and extremely beneficial to the organization. That platform changed the mindset of our leaders, and health system as a whole, because for the first time we had access to real-time, daily feedback to pivot accordingly without needing to depend on an analytics team and delayed data.

As a former client of NRC Health, I have felt, seen, and heard firsthand how the company is creating valuable relationships with its partners and co-designing for frontlines as if they are a part of their team. I credit NRC Health for being the first to move the healthcare industry toward really understanding people as individuals and prioritizing empathy.

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?

  1. I am a very collaborative person, which has helped me throughout my career journey. That trait is also what really drew me to NRC Health, even as a client. The company is a very collaborative partner that brings people together to help health systems deliver the best possible experiences to employees, patients, consumers, and beyond. We are all in it together.
  2. Another trait that has helped me advance in my career is having a growth mindset. I am constantly asking about what we can do next. One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone says that there is something we have tried before and cannot do. I am really passionate about helping pull people up and get them to start thinking creatively about possible solutions — there is always something we can do.
  3. In my professional career, I recognize that I am very agile. I never thought this was truly the case until working in healthcare through the COVID-19 pandemic. I had to reach a new level of agility because everything was changing rapidly and daily — many times, things would even change hourly, so it was critical that I was skilled at pivoting when needed.

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.

A previous team of mine had implemented layoffs, and the patient experience team was going to be impacted. I worked with my boss throughout these decisions, and it was one of the most difficult experiences I have ever faced in my career. I was forced to take a higher-level view of the work, rather than the people, which went against my grain, but it needed to be done. Throughout this challenge, I learned that leadership requires you to have empathy toward not just all impacted team members, but also multiple stakeholders and the organization as a whole. It is important to allow space to have empathy for everyone involved. I think sometimes we forget that leaders are also people, and they have to make hard decisions too.

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?

Empathy is being able to put yourself in others’ shoes to fully understand and absorb their thoughts, ideas, and needs. Even if you don’t know exactly what someone else is thinking or feeling, you can figure out how you would feel in their situation and adjust your actions accordingly.

When it comes to empathy, I think there is a micro-level and a macro-level. The micro-level is understanding the people on your team. As a leader of other leaders, you have to not only understand the background of the people who report to you, but also the people who report to them. The macro-level is understanding the underlying culture of the organization. When communicating broader changes or updates, it is important to understand your colleagues’ sense of belonging at the company and how well they trust the organization — this will allow any leader to communicate in a more thoughtful, effective way that is well-received and respected by teams.

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

Several years ago, when I was fairly new to an organization, I had a team member who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had previously battled breast cancer, then went into remission — she later found out that the cancer was in her bones, and it was terminal. This team member had worked at this organization for her entire career, and it was really important for her to continue to feel like she was contributing. As she got sicker and sicker, I had to lean in and understand what she could do and how she wanted to do the work. She eventually shifted to working fully remote; we took things off her plate at different stages and had her take the lead transitioning things to other colleagues.

She was loved by so many people not only within our own team, but also other teams across the organization. After she passed, we flew the flag at half-staff on campus and held a memorial for her. If the organization had not leaned into empathy, she would have likely been placed on leave for someone else to get the work done. Even though this empathetic approach slowed the work down, it was absolutely the right thing to do for her and our teams.

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

Even though it is difficult and uncomfortable, there will always be times when you need to make a decision that challenges your empathetic nature as a leader. As mentioned, I think there is a micro-level and macro-level when it comes to empathy. Through difficult decision-making, you have to look at the organization from a higher level to make sure your decision allows the company to move forward positively — that is where you tap into the macro-level empathy. However, it is also critical to tap into your micro-level empathy when communicating decisions to teams. I try to put myself in their shoes and then communicate with teams through that lens. Certain decisions may not be well-received; but I stay grounded in reminding myself that we are doing what is best for the organization’s future and that the decision was communicated in the most thoughtful way possible.

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

In leadership, I think empathy goes farther than sympathy. Empathy — putting yourself in someone else’s shoes — triggers action, helping team members really feel seen and heard. However, sympathy is simply messaging, expressing your pity or sorrow for another person — it does not trigger action or truly help support the person’s situation or feelings. It is important for leadership to distinguish the two to understand where they can step in to help. With empathy, action can be done to ensure their colleague has a better experience. But, with sympathy, the situation is more-so out of the leader’s hands and all they can do is express their feelings of sorrow for the other person and be there for support when needed.

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

I realized, probably close to 10 years ago, that I am naturally empathetic. I came to this realization as I was working with some colleagues who were not, and we had some really great conversations around that. I simply thought that everyone saw the world the same way I do — but the truth is, sometimes they don’t. So, we actually created partnerships. My number one tip is to connect with another leader who you know is naturally empathetic and does well in this area. My colleague used to come to me whenever he was faced with having a crucial conversation with someone on his team — we would talk through the conversation plan, what was missing, and what he needed to be thinking about with that particular team member.

Another strategy would be to schedule time to be with your team — whether that be through social events like happy hours or rounding during lunch. I intentionally round and connect with my team — near and far — to occasionally talk about work, but also their lives, kids, what they are doing over the weekend, and more. That is time well spent that leaders often remove from their calendars because more tactical things come up. However, there is no better way to spend your time than with your people.

My third recommendation, at the organizational level, is to work on a comprehensive listening strategy. Listening to people in your organization is so much more than an annual survey — it is about whether you have the right tools and programs in place to understand what is happening to steer the ship in real time.

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

It is hard to uncouple the two. Recently, I read something about how leadership is changing in this modern world — part of the reason it’s changing is because our work teams are changing. Our teams are actually more diverse than ever through ethnicity, age, gender, and more. It’s critical that people feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, as that allows us to build more diverse teams. This all starts with leaders understanding and being empathic toward their colleagues and the different perspectives they bring to the table — not only to benefit the organization, but also to learn how they see the world to foster psychological safety and trust on their teams.

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

1. As a leader, empathy helps you not only see the problems, but also the people who are impacted. This helps drive us to better, more effective solutions.

2. Having empathy creates trust and psychological safety, which leads to…

3. Increased creativity and innovative thinking.

4. Approaching leadership through an empathetic lens improves results for both the team and organization. If you look at any high-performing sports team, many of the coaches attribute their success to the camaraderie and trust among the team — this applies to all successful organizations.

5. Empathy fosters a sense of belonging, improved employee experience, and retention. As they say, most people leave their boss, not their organization.

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

Being an empathetic leader can easily be emotionally taxing at times. To address this feeling, you have to make sure that you are creating space for yourself to process through some of that. When I realized that I am a more empathetic person, I started getting into the routine of finding time for myself to renew. When you are spending the majority of your days being empathetic toward several different points of view — stakeholders, colleagues, the business at large — you can end up with little to no energy left. It isn’t necessarily a downside — it is just what comes with being a human, who also happens to be a leader figuring out how best manage your energy. To recharge, my go-to is typically reading a good book — poetry, fiction, you name it. Also, this sounds cliché, but getting away from technology helps me renew too.

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?

If I know that we are making a big organizational decision, how we effectively communicate it is what keeps me up at night. Through my daily decision-making process, I make sure to pause and take a step back to ensure that I have considered all perspectives of those involved. It isn’t always easy to make huge decisions, but by taking some time before acting is always beneficial so that we know for sure we are making the best choice — rather than simply and quickly reacting to certain situations.

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. 🙂

Since I read a lot, I feel as if I am a member of many movements. If I could start my own now, it would be a movement to just pause. As we know, there is currently a lot of lateral violence and violence from patients and visitors happening within healthcare organizations. If people could simply pause before they act, there would likely be more positive outcomes.

We live in such a fast-paced society because we are not giving our brains a break. Taking a step back and really thinking about how we want to respond and who we want to be in certain situations would make a world of difference. I have learned to ask for a pause, even in professional decision-making, and it truly helps.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Readers can feel free to follow me on LinkedIn at

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.

Jennifer Baron Of NRC Health: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.