Empathy in the World of Work

By Segun Olowu
WE are experiencing rapid change at work. The nature of roles are changing and the jobs that were relevant many years ago are succumbing to automation. Artificial Intelligence and the ability of machines to learn are changing the outlook of the role humans will play. According to the World Economic Forum, social skills, creativity and collaboration skills will be in higher demand than technical skills as machines get better at doing things humans currently do.

Humans are changing too with multiple generations now co-existing in the workplace, coupled with the ongoing evolution around what constitutes work. Add to these the imperative to attract, develop and retain top talent and you have got an interesting challenge.

All of these put leadership in a continuous state of flux and demand leadership styles and approaches that interact with talent differently. The imperative to balance a hard results orientation with essential leadership qualities such as emotional intelligence, collaboration and empathy cannot be overstated. This makes obvious the value of understanding empathy at work as you strive to align competing points of view, build agility into your day-to-day, and collaborate with the teams that drive the results you strive to achieve.

Why Empathy?  

Empathy is simply the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of another person and to see things from their point of view. It encompasses being considerate and acknowledging of others’ perspectives. Daniel Goleman, a renowned psychologist, defined it as the ability to read other people and emphasized empathy as being a critical component of emotional intelligence.

In practice, being empathic means identifying and recognizing the emotions evoked by oneself and others. This involves a shared emotion and consciousness of who you are, what you do, what you say and how it all could impact and influence those around you. Your ability to understand the emotions that your team members are feeling allows you to be an effective communicator and problem-solver, as you build the trust and rapport that enable team success.

Nurturing a defined culture of care and empathy will ensure that employees not only feel respected but feel inspired to drive towards outstanding results. It is without doubt that as a leader, empathy is important as you cannot effectively lead, influence or motivate individuals that you do not understand.

Empathy in Business

Today, organizations are shifting the focus from “what” is being delivered to account for “how” it is delivered. It is no longer okay to deliver results and leave “dead bodies” behind. Caring about people and caring about results do not have to be mutually exclusive. The tricky part and leadership challenge is how to strike a delicate balance between both. Empathy does not mean things do not get done or that slacking-off becomes acceptable. Rather, it is the demonstration of openness, appreciation and thoughtfulness about another’s perspective.

Many studies have underscored empathy as an important skill for leaders at work. A global leadership firm, DDI, asserted that empathy is “overwhelmingly the most critical driver of overall performance.” It further noted that managers that show higher levels of empathy towards their teams are perceived to be better performers by their leaders. Other studies have also shown that there is a positive correlation between enhanced performance, growing revenue, and empathy.

In my workplace, we are evolving our performance feedback culture through the concept of radical candor. Kim Scott who authored this defined Radical Candor in feedback as the ability to “challenging directly” and show that you “care personally”. Caring personally brings empathy into what could ordinarily be a difficult conversation. Scott concluded that “challenging people is often the best way to show people you care even when you’re the boss.” It surely is less about the “what”, and more about the “how”.

There are clear benefits to demonstrating empathy at work:

Individuals and Teams Deliver More

Empathy drives motivation and motivated staff can be much more creative in identifying solutions that are innovative and help to bring efficiency to business productivity. Deeper insight into the behaviour of team members can help leaders take appropriate proactive and corrective action while keeping employees engaged and inspired.

Trust is Created

Efforts by the leader to develop empathy and understand the diverse perspectives of members of the team could positively impact their confidence as they can openly share and talk about ideas. Leaders that not only respect but also acknowledge and sometimes accept the views of team members will be able to create powerful working relationships. As employees begin to trust that their personal contribution is valued by their leaders, they feel more confident to put in their best efforts towards organizational objectives.

Talent is Nurtured and Retained

Demonstration of empathy by leaders play a significant role in strengthening employee engagement and trust. This could deliver benefits in retention of top talent, building a powerful talent base for continuous growth.

Flexing Your Empathy Muscles  

You already possess the natural ability to empathize with others. To demonstrate empathy at work, here are 3 simple things you can start to do immediately:

Be More Self-aware

Self-awareness is at the core of emotional intelligence and a starting point for empathy. Emotional intelligence is a concept every leader should hone. This would enhance your ability to choose your response in any given situation. Self-awareness is key to understanding perspectives that are way different from ours. We all respond to situations based on our innate tendencies which may not be ideal all the time.

Generally, being mindful and able to exercise restraint on our natural tendencies in order to hear the next person with an open mind is important for the demonstration of empathy. Keep an open mind and examine your own attitude. Placing too much emphasis on your own assumptions and beliefs would not leave much room for empathy.

Listen More

One of the easiest ways for you to develop more empathy is to become a better listener. Many of us listen without intent to understand what the other person is saying but focus only on what to say next. One key trait of empathic leaders is their ability to listen attentively. Every conversation you have is an opportunity to build rapport, deepen relationships, develop common grounds, and enable the exchange of ideas. Asking the appropriate questions and paying attention to non-verbal cues are as crucial as listening to the words being said during a conversation.  To be effective, this requires letting go of the notion that you know what is best or have the right answer. When you understand why others believe what they believe, you can acknowledge it even when you do not agree. Listening more shows your team that you value what they have to say, you value their opinions, and you value them.

Communicate More

Communication is one thing you cannot really overdo, even if you are doing a lot of it already. It is crucial to connect the dots for your team and help them understand the “what” and the “why”. Mindfulness is important given communication could be tricky given your intent might easily vary from the interpretation or impact on your team. Be candid and do not assume they do not want to know, even when they are not asking directly.

What do you communicate? Simply ask your team how they would like to receive communication and you might be surprised at the answers you get. Alternatively, you could put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel in a similar situation? What would you do? What would you want or expect to hear from your leader? How would you want to hear it?

Use insights from your answers to inform your approach to ensure you are building rapport and fostering the right level of communication. In demonstrating empathy, it is okay to check-in, show concern, ask about their wellness, and show support. Above all, be kind with how you communicate and go beyond words – your body language matters too and many can sense deception a mile away.

A powerful skill that you can exhibit as a leader is the ability to empathize with your team. This builds on your emotional intelligence and is a skill that you can learn like any other. Demonstrating empathy at work will enable you foster a culture of open communication, understand the concerns and motivations of your team, while building trust and deep relationships that will serve the organization well.

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