It is difficult to count what we have lost during the pandemic. We’ve lost jobs, loved ones, incomes and our social lives. Living and working remotely has also meant we are losing our empathy for colleagues. This is especially true of business leaders and executives who need to be able to understand the problems their employees are grappling with as we leave lockdown.
This loss in our ability to empathize with one another is not new. In 2018, 51 per cent of Brits said they thought it was declining, compared with just 12 per cent who thought it was increasing. The pandemic has supercharged this. We are looking at one another through screens and heavily ensconced in our own worlds, so it is difficult to expand our awareness to people with different experiences.
There is a crucial difference between empathy and sympathy. To sympathize with someone means we feel sad for their misfortune. Empathy, on the other hand, means understanding and sharing the feelings of another.
Throughout the pandemic, most of us have been able to sympathize with those who have lost jobs or family members. We have been able to feel compassion for those living in cramped quarters. But by being physically separated from them, we have not been able to truly understand and empathize with those people.
We have become distanced from our employees and, more widely, our customers – the
majority of who increasingly want to deal with companies and brands that demonstrate their care for people and the planet. As offices start to reopen, it is vital we can act with empathy towards our staff and those we serve. This is crucially important for those at the top of businesses, who have kept their jobs and had a different experience of the pandemic.
In order to understand the customers and people they are serving, business leaders need to be able to understand their staff. There is a huge array of experience just waiting to be tapped into to create a more empathetic work environment. Some communities are more tight-knit than others and have had better support systems throughout lockdown. Younger workers may have been more isolated and need more help and encouragement returning to the office.
Often senior executives have more in common with other senior executives than their customers and other target audiences, such as staff. Therefore, learning how to rebuild lost empathy will mean spending more time with the people you’ve never met. To lead with listening and not opining, to immerse yourself first-hand in the real-world experience of your customers’ lives rather than just reading reports about them.
On a practical level, this might look like asking for written feedback from staff on their experience of lockdown. It could also mean trying to spend time in the office coffee shop. Appearing physically accessible to employees will encourage conversations that can never happen over email.
There is also a place for data, but not as we know it. In today’s big data era, digital interaction between companies and customers means businesses have access to more data than ever before. Sourcing the most valuable data isn’t the only challenge. When there is an over-reliance on endless sheets of numbers it can be difficult to define behaviors. There is a risk of losing a richness of understanding. One-on-one interviews with staff or customers can be more useful than “big data”. It can be costly and time-consuming and, because of this, it often gets left behind.
However, with so much of the same data out there, it is in the small, slow data that the most striking insights can be found – nuanced findings that can make all the difference between people thinking you and your business are empathetic, or not.
Would you consider yourself an empathetic person at work? Are you always willing to lend an ear to your co-worker’s latest band practice drama, or would you prefer to keep conversations at the corporate level?
A recent survey conducted for the 2018 State of Workplace Empathy reported that a whopping 96% of respondents rated empathy as an important quality for companies to demonstrate. Despite this, 92% of employees believe that empathy remains undervalued at their company, which is an increase from results in prior years.
Empathy is described as not just understanding another person’s perspective, but truly putting yourself in their shoes and feeling those emotions alongside that person. It’s a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, and when a workplace demonstrates empathy, there are countless studies that correlate it to increased happiness, productivity, and retention amongst employees.
Workingmums.co.uk hosted two employer workshops on how empathy can be used to create a more engaged, productive workforce in November led by Oliver Hansard and Joss Mathieson from Catalyst Thinking Partners.
Opening the first workshop, Hansard said that, in a world where we are in control of so little that is going on, empathy is a key skill. It is no use having technical ability without having the skills to unlock people’s potential, he stated. He argued that empathy is generative rather than passive, meaning that it guides people’s actions.
Mathieson said Covid has shown the importance of engagement and regular communication and added that empathy is crucial for dealing with a culture of change. If change is handled badly and with a lack of empathy, it can knock people sideways for months, he said. People’s attitude to change is deeply personal, he added, so we need to understand what it means to individuals to ensure people are able to deal with it effectively.
Hansard and Mathieson asked what people understood by the term empathy. Empathy is not only about understanding another person’s perspective, but it guides what actions should be taken and what support might be required. In volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times we also need VUCA leadership is required, said Hansard and Mathieson, that is, leadership focused on being Valiant, Understanding, Compassionate and Authentic:
– Valiance is about not being afraid to show that you don’t know everything, to ask what others think and to do the right thing; – Understanding is about understanding how others feel; – Compassion is about being consistently thoughtful, even in challenging circumstances; – Authenticity is about being genuine and honest and not being afraid to show vulnerability, for instance, to talk about what it is really like living through this pandemic.
Hansard and Mathieson pointed out that there is often a discrepancy between how empathetic CEOs think they and their company are versus what employees perceive. A recent workplace empathy survey from Businesssolver showed, for instance, that 68% of CEOs think their companies are empathetic, compared to 48% of employees, and that 76% of employees think empathy leads to greater productivity compared to 52% of CEOs. Moreover, 70% of employees think greater empathy results in lower staff turnover, compared to just 40% of CEOs.
In their Empathy Manifesto, Hansard and Mathieson have called for a cultural shift around empathy and referred to how Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, had put empathy at the core of innovation to understand the different needs of customers and appreciate different perspectives. Microsoft has shifted from a ‘know it all’ culture to ‘learn it all’ as a result.
As a framework, Hansard and Mathieson outlined their Empathy Compass which has empathy at the centre, surrounded by self, team, organisation and customer. They said empathy for yourself is your “North Star”. By understanding how you are feeling, you can be more empathetic to others and more resilient. They emphasised the importance of finding time for yourself amid family and work demands.
In a team setting, empathy involves listening to others and being prepared to act on what they say, being honest rather than hiding bad news and taking the group with you. It can involve ensuring people take time out regularly to care for others in the team, testing things out and listening to feedback.
When it comes to customers, empathy is about listening to their needs and adjusting products or services accordingly, whether they are internal or external clients. It is an opportunity to show you care and value customers and it drives loyalty.
There are two dimensions to organisational empathy – top down empathy demonstrated by senior managers and bottom up empathy that builds from the sum of other acts of empathy – teams, customers and self.
Hansard and Mathieson discussed how to attract and hire empathetic candidates and said it is about having the right behavioural frameworks and asking candidates at interview about what they think empathy is and requesting that they give examples of how they have demonstrated this. Also, they can be asked about their personal values and the employer can assess the cultural fit against their organisational values, if they have been clearly defined.
Participants then discussed examples of empathetic leadership in their own organisations, including weekly videos from CEOs about the need for everyone to take care of themselves; leaders who are mental health first aiders; role models and influencers who generate empathy; leader drop-in sessions; leaders who give people permission to take time out; a focus on domestic abuse; employee audits that ensure employers know about the different problems affecting different groups; treating employees like consumers; and a focus on adaptability to change and on how an empathetic culture supports this.
Mathieson said it is important to be aware that different cultural contexts need to be taken into account and that a different empathetic approach may be needed for different stages of the pandemic. Hansard said listening needs to become an organisational habit as does demonstrating that what is being said is being taken on board. Mathieson said employers need to listen more than they talk.
In the second workshop, participants explored empathetic listening or what one participant called “listening hard”. They focused on the reciprocal empathetic relationship between employer and employee and the importance of creating an environment of trust where employees feel they can be open and honest and that what they say will be acted upon. There was also a discussion on how an empathetic culture could boost understanding of customer needs and help deliver better services. Better listening can sometimes be enough to push things forward in itself if people feel they are being heard.
Hansard said there are three types of empathy: cognitive empathy or empathy by thought – the ability to see another’s perspective; emotional empathy – the ability to feel another’s emotions; and generative empathy – which generates empathy in others and leads to action, if not by the listener then by others. Receiving and witnessing empathy has a profound impact and generates empathy for others.
They outlined their ACORN method of generative empathy which is based on:
Attention – listening with full attention and not imposing your own perspective;
Curiosity – exploring what the other person is thinking or feeling and checking that you have heard and understood correctly;
Observation – noticing all signals, including body language and emotions
Reflection – being a mirror and testing what people are saying, for instance, stating: ‘I think what you are saying is…’ This can be helpful even if you get it wrong as it might make the person think about the issue in a different way if done well; and
Next steps – working together to identify action for you and for them.
Participants then took part in an empathy breakout session to try the ACORN method for themselves, working in trios where one person shared a challenge or problem, one person listened to another and another observed.
Reflecting afterwards, some participants described the difficulty of letting go of the feeling that they needed to find a solution to people’s problems rather than just reflect them back and find a supportive way forward. Mathieson said intentional listening has to be practised regularly and developed “as a muscle”. This is particularly important for building resilient organisations, promoting inclusion and helping people to navigate agility and change.
Hansard and Mathieson have developed a six-month empathy training programme for leaders which shows significant boosts in leaders’ ability to listen and teams’ ability to behave empathetically as well as increased trust. The leaders who have taken part say it is transformative, helping teams feel more connected and able to be more honest and open.
If you would like to know more about the Empathy Manifesto and the work Hansard and Mathieson do, please contact them on firstname.lastname@example.org/ www.hansardcoaching.com and email@example.com/www.changeoasis.com.