In the light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, workplace empathy is the need of the hour. Empathy brings business leaders and their teams closer and fosters trust, collaboration, and organizational growth. Still, many leaders struggle to make it part of their organizational culture. In this article, we explore why it is critically important to lead with empathy and how leaders can model ways to prioritize well-being and take care of their workforce.
Most of us say that “I understand your situation,” but we find it extremely difficult to keep away our perspectives, thoughts, judgments, experiences, biases, and understandings while dealing with people around us.
Only your shoe will fit you well. There are chances that you will get a few people who share the same size, but others will have different sizes. Some may be too stuffy and small; others may be too big to fill in, giving discomfort and a challenge to wear. Be with it for some time. The task is not to discover your comfort zone but to understand and accept the situation as is and say, “I see and understand where you are.” That’s empathy!
When dealing with humans, one has to be humane. Empathy is principally described as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” but how many of us remove our shoes before getting into someone else’s? It’s not rocket science but not that simple either. Most of us say that “I understand your situation,” but we find it extremely difficult to keep away our perspectives, thoughts, judgments, experiences, biases, and understandings while dealing with people around us.
Organizational growth is primarily dependent on people. Hiring, developing, engaging, retaining; any phase we can think of will depict whether employees’ prime and simple demand — their needs, situation, point of view — has been understood or not. They want the organization and the leaders to know, accept, and respect the purpose and reason behind their actions. If the dots are not connected undeviatingly at the right time, employees disconnect and move on.
“Most of us say that “I understand your situation,” but we find it extremely difficult to keep away our perspectives, thoughts, judgments, experiences, biases, and understandings while dealing with people around us.”
As a leader, you may want to understand and help your people, but you will not always provide an apt resolution. There is a possibility that you may not even find a solution, and that’s ok; listen to them and reassure them that you understand their situation and you are there for them.
Though most needed in the current times, empathy remains low in business leaders and the organization’s overall culture, with only 40% having proficient empathy skills. A few other statistics to consider are:
72% of leaders agree that there is more acceptance and consciousness now because of the COVID-19 scenario.
Only 37% of employees feel that organizations put in required efforts to add empathy as a core culture pillar.
Only 32% of managers confirmed that they get counselled and mentored to stay empathetic.
69% of leaders accepted that defining the limits of empathy is difficult.
Only 26% of employees could connect empathy to organizational culture. For most, it is never talked about as a skill.
89% of leaders and employees feel that empathy is and will be the most critical future skill.
So, where do you see yourself and your organization in terms of the aforesaid numbers?
Let’s admit that empathy is not a simple skill that we can master, no matter how enormously we invest. The definition will keep evolving and redefining depending on the people, culture, behaviour, situation, and needs. Leaders should keep it as simple as possible to understand, participate, and contribute when needed. Here are nine manageable approaches that I would propose leaders consider when dealing with people they care and should care about:
Stay neutral, at least try to: It is not your story, even though you have faced a comparable situation, circumstances would have been different for sure. Even a 0.1% difference can make a huge impact. Hence, it is important to respect and understand others’ situations by being impartial. In addition to this, even your current situation may influence your perspective and decision-making skills. Humanely, it is challenging to keep all of that aside, but a conscious effort may help a little.
You aren’t a machine either: It’s not a binary system, where you can collate all the data, analyze and provide a straightforward solution. It’s impractical to suggest that you keep your perspective and emotions out of the entire process. What I would recommend is, know your boundaries as they will get mixed up. There will always be an influential pull to plug in your expertise, refrain as much as possible.
You can’t get into someone else’s shoes, literally: Easy said than done! Leaders may try to stay neutral and know the exact details to find the proper perspective, but it’s a role play, an emotional one. You may want to be there, but there will perpetually be a gap as you aren’t there. Accept and walk the extra mile to bridge that gap by building a comfort level where people feel safe and empowered to share all that’s needed.
Empathy starts with giving space to people when needed. When they want to be in their zone, leaders should accept this and give them time to regain and manage. Not every situation needs our intervention; sometimes, understanding a person’s need, sitting far, and just watching does all the needed magic.
There is no perfect solution: As a leader, you may want to understand and help your people, but you will not always provide an apt resolution. There is a possibility that you may not even find a solution, and that’s ok; listen to them and reassure them that you understand their situation and you are there for them. Sometimes, that’s all they need to find a solution themselves.
Data and technology are almost everything, not everything: Recently, I have witnessed that there is too much dependency exhibited on data and technology. We must realize that these are enablers and should empower us to adequately in advising our people sensibly. The comfort and need of human touch cannot be neglected, no matter what level of transformation any organization goes through. To practice empathy, leaders will have to define the right mix of data-driven and emotion-driven strategies consciously.
Over involvement kills the motive: We, as leaders, sometimes feel that we know everything, and we may want to know everything. The line that demarks the required border when it gets faded ruins the foundation. Empathy starts with giving space to people when needed. When they want to be in their zone, leaders should accept this and give them time to regain and manage. Not every situation needs our intervention; sometimes, understanding a person’s need, sitting far, and just watching does all the needed magic. So, get involved when asked and till then keep checking.
It will always need time and intent: There is no magic potion or a spell that leaders can use to handle every situation. Listening, understanding, connecting, circling back will take time, every single time. The intent to understand and invest in individuals should be strong enough to keep the drive on. You may come across a different story every day with a different role to play. The shoe is changing; to fit in, you need to adapt and change.
It’s part of the profile: I have heard people saying that I can manage the business and not emotions. Nobody is doing any favour by being there for the team, reasonably. That’s a fundamental expectation that leaders should take care of their people’s emotions and wellbeing. One won’t be able to deal effectively in an emotionless environment unless your team members are robots, and looking at the pace of advancement, there is no guarantee that robots won’t seek emotional support later. So, invest well and learn well!
Every individual is unique: It’s not just that each individual is different and unique; looking at the uncertain times, there is a higher probability that the same individual will be different on different days. Various ungovernable factors will redefine the uniqueness, and leaders should be ready to sense and prepare for these variations. The task is challenging but doable.
But, why just leaders? Empathy is a human skill; it is and should be a core part of the culture of any organization. When the Covid-19 hit us, leaders were the first ones to say, “we don’t know where we are heading, we may not be able to give increment as there is no clarity, there will be no bonus for next two years,” and passed similar statements with an expectation that employees will listen, accept, understand and support. That’s expecting empathetic behaviour from your workforce. So, in my view, considering or developing compassionate leaders alone will never be a sustainable strategy unless the cycle of empathy is completed by 100% participation. Everybody in the organization should be able to lead themselves and others with empathy.
Some people are naturally more empathetic than others, but the good news is that empathy is a learnable trait, and with the proper focus, creating a great organization with a compassionate culture won’t remain a dream forever. Leaders should make a conscious investment to achieve the desired level of camaraderie; as Indra Nooyi rightly said, “If you want to improve the organization, you have to improve yourself, and the organization gets pulled up with you.”
Relating and connecting with people is more important than anything, as they are the key drivers. Leaders need to learn to lead the way well by understanding and enabling them to define a win-win journey for all.
It’s not just a role-play; it is the play! Play with a purpose, treat with empathy!