Empathy in the Workplace? Modern-day leaders achieve their objectives on a functional level, and with a charismatic style that engages the hearts and minds of many – if only all leaders are like Sir Richard Branson. Unfortunately, in this day and age of best practice and social consciousness, there are still many organisations that are led with a pure autocratic style – “this is our sales target, now get it done”, for example. Along the line, the autocratic management style leads to the same operational headaches, resulting in decreased staff morale, lower productivity, and inevitable staff turnover.
The bottom-line is the correlation between productivity and people. However, the key to sustainability is getting the best out of people by aligning their aspirations with the vision of your organisation. It is easier said than done, but we must try. The following will provide some guidance to making this happen.
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What is empathy?
We normally get sympathy and empathy confused with one another. A quick definition of “sympathy” is to feel sorrow for another, whereas “empathy” is defined as the ability to identify and relate to another person’s situation, feelings, or motivation. Empathy is a form of intelligence that allows us to recognise the concerns people have. Put simply, empathy is about viewing the world through their eyes, or “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes”. I would like to think that empathy is a far useful tool to help people – regardless of the context of leading a business or a country.
According to Daniel Goleman, the acclaimed psychologist who developed the EQ (Emotional Quotient) Emotional Intelligence framework, empathy is “perhaps the second most important element”. Goleman regards empathy as the ability to understand the viewpoints and needs of those around you. He also observes that people with empathy are above average at recognising the feelings of others, especially when those feelings are not that obvious. A manager or leader adept at this ability is usually excellent at seeing the intentions of others because of their heightened listening and relating skills – they are asking the right questions, and listening intently to the answer. This usually translates to better people management.
To someone with low EQ or empathy, this might sound a little like mind-reading, but the reality is that it is an ability that anyone can develop.
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Empathy in the workplace
If “the people” are a reflection of leadership, then it makes sense for managers and leaders to really get in touch with their employees. Apart from taking the time to understand the mechanics of operations and job functions, leaders need to engage with people to appreciate the company from their perspective. Find out what they enjoy about their day on the job, and discover their recurring challenges. In this process and if you’re lucky, you might be able to identify and remove weeds before it truly grows into a problem.
As a leader with empathy, your objective is to help an employee by listening to their concerns and leading them to a solution. When you’re using empathy skills, you can better understand where they’re coming from. You can really observe a problem objectively for what it is, and ideally without your own filter, bias, or judgment. You can then prescribe a solution based on their needs, and not based on a solution conjured by how you feel. In the bigger picture of running a company, as a leader, it’s not just about getting your staff to buy into your vision, but also for you to engage them based on their aspirations. If you can integrate their aspirations into your vision, you will achieve collective alignment. As such, people who are more engaged produce a higher quality of work because there is a reality of sharing the same challenges and benefits. An “us and them” attitude then changes to a more conducive “we’re all in the same boat” mentality.
Attract and retain
How many times have you heard the phrase “it’s hard to find good talent”, or “they always resign after their pay increase”? If you belong to a company that’s all too familiar with this reality and dialogue, then it might be a good time to evaluate your approach. Apart from the promise of career progression and a salary increase, there needs to be a compelling reason to join a company, and this is usually the same reason why people stay loyal.
A work culture that embodies empathy usually has a reputation of looking after its people. Managers in such companies habitually “put themselves in other people’s shoes” to understand the perspective of their staff, and rely on this insight to fuel their decision-making. Ideally, this philosophy proliferates through all levels of hierarchy and influences best practice human resource management. From the basic experience of leading by example, employees, in turn, behave in the same manner as their managers. Along the timeline and with consistency, an emphatic organisational culture is created.
Managers who are emphatic readily show their appreciation for a good standard of work. A study on employee recognition conducted by the American Psychological Association found 90% who reported feeling valued said they were motivated to do their best at work. On the flip side, almost all employees that were not recognised or valued were in the market for a new job within 12 months.
A customer’s perspective
According to acclaimed author and leadership specialist, John C. Maxwell:
People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.
In the context of branding and consumer behaviour, people won’t buy your product or service until they know you care. You can bang on a drum all day long to attract attention, but if you are not connecting with their real needs, your relationship will not sustain after a mere transaction. Empathy in leadership impacts how well employees feel and perform at work, which then translates to the quality of delivery (product or service), and ultimately customer experience.
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Empathy can positively affect customer service in many ways. Consider listening intently to a customer request, delivering as promised, and over-delivering by satisfying an ‘underlying’ need. Giving customers something they didn’t know they wanted is a step towards customer service excellence. If you can consistently deliver and communicate a level of care to customers, they should keep coming back for more.
If we look at another front-end experience, can you imagine a marketing campaign for an insurance company that didn’t demonstrate empathy? Or an airline advertisement that didn’t communicate their ability to make passengers safe and comfortable in their journey? It’s fair to say there is a healthy dose of empathy that’s weaved into their message. Why? Because when people know you care, they care what you know.
Below are the seven benefits of empathy in organisations:
- Empathy helps to create a positive organisational culture based on openness and understanding.
- Understanding the intentions, feelings and thoughts of others help leaders become more in tuned with their team’s successes and failures.
- Creates authentic connections between people.
- Allows for true feedback and fuels objective decision-making.
- Without an emphatic leader, employees internalise their problems and then externalise them in inappropriate ways.
- Helps create an atmosphere of cooperation in any environment.
- Emphatic leaders are motivated to make more decisions that reflect the common good.
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