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(Blog) Empathy starts in the head, not in the heart.

And your workplace needs more (head) empathy.

If your corporate culture is slipping and you’re noticing more churn, cross-team conflicts or drops in engagement - you may be experiencing an empathy shortage. Top-down, bottom-up or laterally, it has to be ingrained in all aspects of the company. It has to be a part of your culture.

Before we get into how you can do this and why it’s so important, indulge us briefly as we argue semantics. Somewhere along the line, empathy has become an all-encompassing word often used synonymously with well mannered word-cousins like compassion, sympathy, niceness, or kindness. And while these are important human traits that generally evoke emotional intelligence, these are not the traits we are talking about. Instead, empathy is a person’s ability to understand the emotions of another person or team from their perspective - to experience what they experience.

Why is it so important?

Empathy is really the ability to truly understand another’s feelings and often requires an arsenal of empathy tools and frameworks to do it well. The thing is, many of us think we do some of this stuff naturally, but there is a reason why market researchers and UX designers are usually well paid - they’re trained to understand people better than they understand themselves.

Training your people to exercise empathy at work, coupled with leadership teams that enable and encourage these practices, translates into a culture change. This culture change results in enhanced performance & retention rates, meaningful DEI practices, it breaks work silos, and it fosters and scales innovation.

High performing teams. The pace and effectiveness of cross-functional teams arguably correlates with how much trust and (quality) communication exists between them. There are other variables of course, but these are essential. That said, without genuine empathy and perspective, trust and communication can’t exist between two teams.

For example, if you can’t understand why the Product and Client Success teams just aren’t getting along, it could be a lack of empathy. Maybe Product needs to shadow Client Success during a call with a frustrated client to hear first hand, their extensive feedback in real time. Or Client Success should join a roadmap meeting to see how many features are being considered and prioritized to understand the volume they’re already managing. By experiencing each other’s point of view, team members can more deeply understand the pain points and motivations of the other team from their perspective.

Work silos. Teams who understand each other’s pain points, strengths, and values - work faster, work smarter and are more creative. Empathy cracks work silos and enacts collaboration and alignment. Once you truly empathize with another person, you can understand their motivations & obstacles better. The ability to understand more deeply can open the door to direct and effective dialogue.

Retaining & engaging employees. If an employee doesn’t feel heard or supported, they’ll go somewhere else. To retain top talent, you must actively listen to your employees to support them in the ways they need. If you have an employee who doesn’t feel like their ideas are being heard or valued, good luck retaining them with a free pair of company-branded sneakers. It might mitigate their departure momentarily, but eventually they will disengage. A study by Catalyst validates this, with 76% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being engaged, compared to only 32% of people with less empathic senior leaders.

This goes for People teams, too. We encourage HR to look at their own people and design for them with the same rigor a company would for their customers. This means having high levels of empathy to seek to understand and create offerings that will resonate with their unique “customer segments”. Without this level of empathy, your People team may be missing the mark in terms of the offerings that will attract, retain and engage their top talent.

Innovation. Empathy is the crux of human-centered design - so innovation plays two key roles here. The first is that teaching empathy can help your people design, market and sell better products and services. The second, is if people feel psychological safety at work (empathic leaders contribute to this), they may be more likely to share their ideas. In fact, 61% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being innovative at work compared to only 13% of people with less empathic senior leaders (Van Bommel 2021).

Inclusivity. When leaders are empathic, they can create more inclusive environments. About half of people with empathetic leaders reported their workplace was inclusive, compared with less than one fifth of people with less empathetic leadership (Van Bommel 2021). Not only can it help make a person feel a sense of belonging at work when their leader seeks to understand them, it’s also an effective tool in preparation for imminent changes to a corporate culture - like global mergers and acquisitions.

How can I get more empathy in my company?

  1. Leadership alignment. The first order of business is ensuring leadership gets on board with the fact that empathy is important. This means understanding the definition and walking the talk too.

  2. Education & application. People can and should be taught empathy. Like anything, it takes the right mindset and skills … along with a bit of practice. Empathy training shouldn’t be theoretical, it needs to be practical and include using empathy tools, frameworks and strategies so people will feel confident to apply them to personal and professional situations.

  3. Culture. Once leaders are on board, and your people are trained, then you can think about other changes like adopting empathy as a core company value, and talking about the importance of empathy from both an internal perspective and from a customer perspective.

  4. Measure. Start asking questions about empathy in pulse surveys to evaluate your peoples’ understanding of what it is, and how it impacts them as a part of their employee experience. Track how things change in your culture - the more empathy becomes a part of it, the more you will allow your people to do the best work of their lives.

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