Empathy is often confused with but is fairly different from sympathy. To sympathise with someone means to take stock of someone’s emotional distress and offer emotional support. To empathize, however, means to acknowledge that someone’s reality and experience might be different than ours.
Why must one bother themselves with this buzzword then in a work environment, which, evidently, is a professional setting where people, bound by legal contracts, work together towards common goals to essentially further the financial prospects of a legally-held entity – the firm? Is it not enough that the employers and employees duly uphold the contract they are bound by? Is more inquiry in this subject necessary?
What is the need of empathy?
The primary reason for this lies at the core of our shared humanness. Humans, by nature, are social, and we tend to value and seek associations which are positive and uplifting in nature – regardless of the place where we maybe. As beings who are both thinking and feeling in nature, we derive meaning from associations where we feel secure and can be ourselves – which is a hallmark of associations replete with empathy. We appreciate the chance to experience such associations and respond favourably to any calls in the hour of need, even going the extra mile; in-turn, subconsciously harbouring a desire for reciprocity. The more meaningful we deem an association to be for us, higher our aspiration for empathy, and vice-versa. Since no two people can always think and be alike, empathy for each other helps smoothen the relationship, avoid or manage conflicts better, and it encourages collaboration and teamwork. It also opens the doors to better communication since people can trust each other with their authentic selves and thoughts.
Is empathy a learnable skill?
Empathy is both a skill and a trait. It is a skill that can be developed, but as with any other interpersonal skill, it also comes naturally to most people. To this end, humans are gifted with mirror neurons (a class of brain cells), which, as scientific research points out, fire when an action is either performed or observed. To cite a fairly simplistic example, we may cry when we are in distress, and consequently – with the help of these mirror neurons – we are able to discern that a person crying in front of us might be in distress. While research about this subject is ongoing, some psychologists suggest that this might form the base for empathy. If that indeed is true, we are all hardwired for empathy, and understandably, it distresses us when we find ourselves in situations that disregard our need for empathy from associations we find meaningful. It would not be too bold to say, then, that associations that are low on empathy run the risk of being less meaningful.
Why is it important for a leader to be empathetic?
While empathy is a skill that every individual, every employee must strive for, it is all the more so for those in the leadership positions. This is so because as someone who oversees the performance and well-being of several employees, a leader must, undoubtedly lead from the front. Culture runs top-down in any firm and it therefore becomes pertinent for the leadership to exhibit exemplary behaviour that others can, consciously or subconsciously, imbibe and reflect in their own. Besides, empathetic leadership has both tangible and intangible benefits.
Innovation: Empathy fosters innovation since it permits employees to take chances, perhaps even make mistakes and learn, and find new ways of doing the same things or even newer things altogether on the way. When there is no tolerance for mistakes, teams follow whatever is preordained and desist venturing. Quite a few innovations are either accidental or a result of multiple iterations; it is therefore, almost a necessity to leave room for mistakes.
Employee Retention: Empathy boosts employee morale and cements the belief that the firm has more than just a transactional attitude towards its employees. Empathetic leaders help establish a sense of trust, strengthen relations with their reportees, thereby enabling employees to choose the same workplace day after day. In a Businessolver research, about 92% employees reported their intentions to stay with a company if they empathized with their needs.
Employee Performance: A leader with the capacity to observe can delve deeper to figure out the challenges that might be holding back an employee from giving their best. Whether an employee is going through personal challenges, or their expertise is better suited in a different capacity – are some of the ways an employee’s performance issues can be root-caused. A culture with open communication and effective feedback can enable employees to unlock their potential. A Salesforce report indicates that when leaders pay attention to their employees’ needs, the employees are 4.6 times more equipped to produce stellar work.
Business Relations and Revenue: Empathy fosters more empathy. A prime example of this is Southwest Airlines which created a non-profit within the firm to provide such employees with financial support who’ve undergone severe hardships in life. The source of funding for such charity is employees themselves who voluntarily donate from their pay-checks to the cause, and often even go above and beyond, by organizing fundraisers to support their colleagues. Employees that feel seen and heard, will in turn, relay the same empathy to business clients, partners and other stakeholders. A happy customer is a returning customer, even with a sea of other options to choose from. Repeat customers lower a firm’s cost of customer acquisition and even fuel referrals that also help with the same. To quote an example, Ryan Air (European Airlines), increased its profits by over 40% by launching the ‘Always Getting Better’ program that adopted more empathy towards customer needs. In fact, the Global Empathy Index built by Harvard Business Review notes that the top 10 firms in that list increased in value twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50% more earnings.
Employees, at the end of the day, are people with real lives and real problems outside of the challenging problems they commit to solve eight hours a day, five days a week. We may adopt outward identities as we step in (or log in) to our proverbial offices, but we cannot leave our lives and problems at the doorstep. We carry them with us, in the same wonderful minds we use to tackle official problems. It is only fair, then, that real-life distress might spill over and impact our performance at work. As a corollary, events that unfold at the workplace have an impact on our lives beyond it. Our personal and professional lives and selves are indubitably interwoven and one affects the other.
How can a leader show empathy?
One need not necessarily have to understand and agree with others’ experiences, but not invalidating it – is the first step. We might wish to put ourselves in their shoes and find it difficult to because we may never have experienced a personal or professional setback identical to theirs. However, so long as we keep in mind that their reality and experience – which is far different than ours – is still valid, and therefore merits a proportional response, we would’ve done right by them. For example, an employee may have undergone health issues, and while a leader may pride themselves in being someone who can pull themselves together and get straight to work, it is not kind to assume the same of others. When in doubt, ask. One must offer to listen to the employee and consider what they feel might help them in the situation.
Books on leadership by American researcher Brené Brown (Dare to Lead) and by Jim Haudan and Rich Berens (What Are Your Blind Spots?) may help equip leaders with better EQ without having to hide their real feelings or sacrifice having a tough conversation.
What if empathetic behaviour is taken for granted?
We are often worried that people will take advantage of our kind hearts and use our empathy as an excuse to laze away. It is important at this point to note that the world runs with reasonable efficiency not because of hard taskmasters and close monitoring, but because of a sense of accountability – ingrained within systems and the people themselves who form an undeniable part of these systems. At any rate, the inability to hold accountable an indifferent employee in fear of being taken advantage of, is no grounds to penalize a devoted employee. Such fears are rooted in the misplaced belief that a majority of people are indifferent, which would fail to explain why communities and associations turn to empathy or do well at all.
One may perhaps establish and run a system based on fear a short while, but one cannot prevent its impending decline and eventual collapse. What is really needed, is to hire diligently, set realistic and transparent expectations and make systems more accountable. Facilitating a culture of empathy and the grounds for employees to choose to return day after day to a safe, secure workplace is in fact, an investment that pays in the long run.
To sum up, empathy is an important skill not just in the workplace but just about anywhere that is frequented by people. It is both an inherent need and skill in us, and all we have to do, is to tap into the humane in us, underneath the professional suits. Leaders pretty much set the tone for the correspondence among everyone else, and they must therefore adopt their most empathetic selves in a workplace. The easiest way to do that is to understand that given how diverse we all are, so are our realities. And when we get the chance to be our most authentic selves in a workplace, we shine, we exude confidence and cooperate to scale new heights.