A study by Businessolver concluded that one out of three people would switch jobs for a more empathetic company. 40% would work longer hours for a more empathetic employer and a whopping 60% would even take a pay cut to be in a workplace wi greater empathy!
The study clearly demonstrated that an empathetic workplace directly affects employees’ productivity, engagement, motivation and retention.
It’s hard to imagine there could be such concrete benefits from compassion. The ability to put yourself in a co-workers’ shoes is not a skill to be underrated. It’s not something employees can pick up from a company handbook. Empathy is an individual skill that comes more naturally for some than others, but creating an environment where empathy is the norm requires a systematic effort and process across the organization.
The Businessolver study found that while 60% of CEO’s believe their organizations are empathetic, only 24% of their employees agree.
If you’re looking to improve empathy on your team to boost communication, motivation, and wellbeing, here are eight suggestions of how you can start working on empathy in your organization.
Becoming empathetic starts with being open to difficult conversations and being willing to deal with messy stuff.
Leaders need to be available to hear employees' anxieties and concerns. First and foremost, this demands leaders set aside time to check in with employees and listen. Be fully present to deal with employee concerns - put down your phone and step away from the screen and give your staff your full attention. As they explain their situation, ask yourself how you would feel if you were in this situation. If it’s particularly difficult to relate to their experience and feelings, try rephrasing what they are saying. Often when people are upset they can ramble, and as a leader, it can be hard to decipher the grievance. To keep the conversation on track and get to the heart of the matter, try repeating back what you’ve heard. For example, ‘what I’m hearing you say is….’ followed by, ‘is that correct?’ Sometimes it's difficult for staff to even articulate what the issue is and this tactic should help you get to the bottom of the problem.
When staff members go to their colleagues, they hope someone will listen and be empathetic to their concerns. When they take the same concern to a manager, they not only expect an empathetic ear but a solution. The difficulty for leaders is there’s not always a quick fix. The most important thing a leader can do after hearing a concern is to acknowledge whatever stress, frustration, or relevant emotion the team member is feeling, and confirm your willingness to help. If you can see it’s something that will take time, be honest with them about what likely steps there will be and that finding a solution may not be easy but that you’re committed to it. Keep the lines of communication open and follow up after a few days and weeks, and let them know even if the issue is not solved, that you’re working on it and will keep them informed.
When communicating with staff, it’s really important to be able to see them. Prioritize face to face or video meetings rather than calls. People need to see each other to pick up on body language and really understand what’s going on. Is someone saying they’re fine with a situation when every inch of their body is screaming otherwise? You can’t read that unless you see them face to face.
It’s not just in meetings either. Observe people’s body language and posture from day to day. Constant hunched postures, restlessness, or otherwise sudden changes in demeanor could set off alarm bells. If your team is working remotely during the pandemic, schedule video check-ins and make time for some heartfelt ‘how are you?’ check-ins that aren’t all about business. Watch for peoples’ reactions, not just their words.
There are no hard and fast rules about what you should be looking for. Someone might naturally be quite restless and should they suddenly become quiet and slow, it might be cause for concern. You should know your colleagues well enough to have a sense of how they generally carry themselves. If their behavior is different than usual, this could be a clue as to how they are feeling. If you’re concerned, take the initiative! They might never come to you and the problem might just blow up if you don’t take action early.
Be thoughtful about how you approach staff you are concerned about. Never lead with accusations like, ‘you didn’t complete that report on time so I’m wondering if anything is wrong’. Ask the right, solution-focused questions when your team members need support.
Empathy is often colloquially described as the ability to walk in somebody else’s shoes. For managers, it can often be difficult to be empathetic when managerial tasks are so far removed from the day to day work of the team. Leaders who have worked their way up often have the empathetic edge with staff since they also flipped the burgers once upon a time, so to speak.
If you don’t have a clear picture of what each of your team members do from day to day, spend some time with them "on the floor" to really get your head around their work. One of the top stressors for staff is inadequate staffing and a sense of having too much to do. It’s a situation that can easily arise when managers don’t have an accurate assessment of staff workloads and resources are limited.
Members of your team will feel fully supported when you have an empathetic appreciation of their role and associated tasks. In turn, leaders can only adequately delegate work, plan tasks and allocate resources with a full picture of what everyone is doing and the challenges they face in executing their day to day tasks.
Look out for warning signs of burnout. If staff are short-tempered and upset, address it head-on. If it is related to burn out, they can quickly sour the whole team with negativity if you don’t get onto it quickly. Tell them that you understand they’re frustrated and reassure them you are there to help. Set a time to meet to talk it out.
Give staff the benefit of the doubt and avoid jumping to conclusions. Be aware that people may be stressed out for reasons outside the office. For example, where an employee may seem to be burning out from their job duties, it may be the result of personal issues rather than anything in their workload.
Be patient and take the initiative to reach out. There’s often a disconnect between what managers think an employee is feeling and what they’re actually feeling, so don’t make assumptions.
Just as work tasks have varying priority levels and urgency, so do interpersonal situations. Team leaders are in the job of managing people. It’s not just about the content. This sometimes gets forgotten, especially in industries that are highly technical where managers are sometimes less predisposed to soft skills!
However, whatever industry you work in, as a manager you will need to deal with the messy, human stuff and unfortunately, there can often be multiple sensitive situations at once.
Team leaders need to appreciate the gravity of any given situation and prioritize which issues to address and when. To do so, you also need to practice empathy to put yourself in the situation of all the people involved and then objectively assess, as a leader, what it is you need to prioritize.
To build an empathetic culture, integrate some exercises into team meetings. An effective exercise to start building empathy is Arthur Aron’s 36 questions. Aron is a psychologist that developed 3 sets of 12 questions designed to bring people closer together. The questions become increasingly personal and very quickly create intimacy between strangers.
Put team members in pairs and send them off with some questions to bond. These questions work well on a one on one basis. It’s a good idea to return to these questions a number of times to build rapport across the team since colleagues will only have an opportunity to bond a pair at a time.
Empathy builds one to one, one relationship at a time as we extend our compassion and understanding to another. Consequently, empathy in an organization takes time to develop as it blooms in pockets of one on one relationships. Be realistic with your timeline. Developing an empathetic culture will take time, but is definitely possible with determination and a systematic effort across the organization.
If you need to find out how your team members are doing, particularly on a specific job or task, an empathetic strategy is to share your own feelings first to encourage staff to share theirs.
For example, if a staff member has been offered a big assignment, instead of asking them directly how they feel about it, think about how you might feel in that situation. Ideally, consider a similar task you’ve experienced and how you felt. If you felt excited but also overwhelmed, you can check in with your staff by leading with that. For example, you might congratulate them on their new role and say you would be excited about it, but also feel a bit overwhelmed. This is likely to prompt their own reactions, but if they don’t respond with their feelings, that’s fine. If they do go into their feelings, be prepared for that conversation and allow the time if your staff really need to share. Perhaps they are elated over their new role and are bubbling with excitement. Perhaps they burst into tears distraught about the extra pressure, travel away from children, or another concern. Listen. Offer help if they need it, or consider further resources you could refer them to or who else you might loop into the discussion- like the HR or People Operations teams.
Empathy is demanding, of team members and of leaders. Leaders need to lead by example, exemplifying empathetic behavior to model it for staff. Empathy starts with leadership, and it needs to be on the agenda for the professional development of leaders to make it a company norm. Leaders need to be comfortable with dealing with messy stuff and finding a balance between the professional and personal so that employees can be the strongest versions of themselves at work. The less that people need to assume the mask of a ‘work’ persona, the more they will feel recognized as a person first and employee second and the sooner you are on your way to having a culture of empathy.