Original publication in Forbes on January 17th 2020
The world of work is changing dramatically, and from entry-level employees all the way up to the CEO, everyone is trying to understand what those changes mean for our future. Employees around the world are likely feeling enormous pressure and uncertainty because of digital transformation. They may find that they need to learn new skills just to stay employed, and some may even be feeling the threat of losing their jobs to technology entirely.
For organizations and their leaders, tight labor markets and skills gaps across industries create pressures of their own. Replacing experienced talent can be difficult and expensive, so retaining skilled and experienced staff — and allowing them to grow and develop new skill sets — has become important for business success.
Many companies are also realizing the power of diversity in filling those skills gaps and building effective teams and are actively seeking diversity of thought across ages, genders and backgrounds.
As the senior vice president of growth markets at a company that researches and provides curriculums about empathy, I believe workplace empathy is a powerful tool leaders can use to address all of these challenges and create an environment where people can do their best work. One of the most basic human desires is to be understood, and empathy is our ability to relate to the thoughts, emotions or experiences of others.
In the past, empathy was not seen as essential for a business. But today, organizations that ignore the power of empathy in their culture do so at their own peril. According to Businessolver’s 2019 “State of Workplace Empathy” report (via PR Newswire) — which surveyed 1,850 respondents, including employees, HR professionals and CEOs — 93% of employees said they were more likely to stay with an empathetic employer, and 82% said they would consider leaving for a more empathetic company.
To display corporate empathy, you should understand the emotional impact a company has on its people and demonstrate the willingness to make changes accordingly — by taking empathy from experience to action. The effects can play out in small ways across an organization and accrue to a transformational force. When people feel heard, they tend to feel valued, which gives them the freedom to be themselves, speak out and perform to their highest potential.
Empathy can also allow diverse teams to tap into the power behind their natural differences in perspective, creating a productive dialogue that leads to better outcomes. Adopting a culture of empathy makes a company smarter and stronger and can increase its ability to recruit top talent and retain valuable employees and customers.
So what can companies do to build an empathetic culture and encourage all employees to practice empathy at work?
The important thing to understand is that this is a mindset that can be learned, and it starts with leadership. Executives are not just driving the success of their direct reports — they are shaping the culture of the organization.
Their mission is not just to model empathy in personal interactions, but to help the company at large understand why — why is it important for managers to be engaged with their employees? What’s the impact it can create for the business? By doing so, leaders can help embed empathy as a social norm into their business.
From senior leadership, the responsibility flows down to managers. Managers represent a direct connection between the company and its employees, so it’s critical for them to be engaged with their teams. I’ve found few skills that are as effective at motivating employees as empathy — and 91% of CEOs that Businessolver surveyed felt empathy was directly tied to a company’s financial performance.
Companies that don’t have empathy training programs in place can begin to build their culture of empathy by encouraging both managers and executives to simply be curious. Ask people about their experiences. Listen to their challenges, and help them to find solutions. Seek to understand before acting, and lead by example.
Ultimately, this is how you put empathy into action. When managers prioritize spending time with people, engaging them in dialogue and developing their skills, it can pay dividends for the organization over the long term.
Put your devices away when you’re talking to employees; nothing communicates “I care” more than demonstrating your undivided attention. Another important learning is to focus less on “I” and more on “you.” Self-centered leaders are often terrible at empathizing. Apply the 80/20 rule, and listen more than you speak. Active listening goes a long way and shows colleagues you’re there for them.
These topics are becoming bigger priorities for companies of all sizes. Developing a culture of workplace empathy, along with a culture of learning and development, should be part of your overall value proposition as an employer.
I believe building that brand is key to ensuring you’re successful in recruiting, hiring and retaining the best people — and considering today’s tight markets for labor and skills, these principles can be make-or-break for an organization. Engagement and employee growth work in tandem with business success, and keeping people engaged in their jobs and growing in their careers is an investment no company can afford to ignore.