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Make empathy a priority and your business will reap the benefits

by uma
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By Jo Lyon, Managing Director and co-founder at Talking Talent

The ability to be compassionate as a human and connect with people around us is vital, professionally, and personally. On a professional level, research has shown that empathy leads to happier and more productive employees with increased loyalty and retention.

At its core, empathy in the workplace is about treating people, as people; working alongside each other as individuals who are managing non-work-related pressures all the time and understanding how this can impact work.

It should come naturally to many of us, but after decades of toxic work environments, corporate mindsets, and expectations of leaving our personal lives at the office door, our expectations may be skewed. Additionally, with burnout levels skyrocketing, long working hours, high targets, and ineffective management training – a once simple instinct can seem like a minefield.

The business benefits

Individuals who demonstrate more empathy are skilled at understanding a situation from a neutral perspective and can respond in a fair, balanced way that considers the nuances of people’s lives.

Businesses may well benefit if employees left their personal lives at the door, but we all know that as a diverse, multi-faceted population, we don’t (and shouldn’t) operate in that way. We should feel confident about bringing our whole selves to the workplace. We need to nurture an open working culture where everyone can share their struggles and benefit from support.  So, how can we do that?

Creating a culture with empathy at the core

In much the same way that empathy has been eroded over time – bringing it back to the workplace is a longer process with no overnight solution. At the core of a more empathetic workplace is one that fosters an open culture where people are valued for their diverse needs and talents. Unfortunately, this won’t happen without ongoing discussion, coaching and frank evaluation.

This culture is one that embodies the notion of psychological safety which means having the space to air your feelings without fear of repercussions, whether that is feelings of discrimination or being overwhelmed by both work and personal pressures. Having this at work means that workers can air issues before they grow and cause bigger issues, such as burnout, down the line. We should think about the basic act of empathy as a building block of this psychological safety because it is an important part of knowing our feelings are taken seriously, and without it the safety can’t exist.

In fact, many terms you hear a lot in the discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace are dependent on the ability to be empathetic. Allyship is an essential part of DEI and is a key example of the need for empathy. How can we hope to advocate for others in the workplace if we don’t try to understand their experiences and emotions?

A two-way street

Of course, every workplace comprises people of different ages and professional levels. Whether you’re a manager or not, you’re likely to have felt multiple pressures from all angles over the last couple of years.

The expectation can be that managers should pick up pastoral care and balance professional responsibilities without expecting it in return, but is that really an empathetic culture? In my view this adds pressure to some groups which can only worsen existing issues. Without mutual respect and empathy, across the hierarchy, your workplace is doomed to exclude some people from adequate emotional care.

Walk in their shoes

We must remember that at the centre of empathy is the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes – often people who have very different experiences to us. While there are always similarities, the differences between an employee and a manager can be perceived as stark. 

When we talk about empathy, we must leave roles out of it and create a place where mutual respect and empathy is a given. The workplace is changed by the actions of many, not few. The culture is built by them too.

Regardless of the COVID-19 aftermath and the nature of a ‘workplace’ becoming more abstract, lack of empathy needs to be firmly left in the past as we adapt to our surroundings and colleagues. Across all levels, we can all benefit from more empathy and understanding at work.