In any future-facing business, there is a benefit to managers developing the ‘soft skill’ of empathy. In the post-covid workplace, however, empathy has become more than a ‘nice idea’; it has become a vital part of maintaining successful relations with the diverse teams who are now frequently Working from Home (WFH) or on a hybrid workplace system.
It is probably worth taking a moment to define our terms. It is often the case that empathy and sympathy are confused and even considered interchangeable. While certainly they are linked, and one requires the other, from the point of view of the workplace, the important difference is that empathy ideally generates a practical response. With sympathy, we ‘feel sorry’ for someone or share their feelings without any need to go beyond that emotional response. Empathy requires an understanding of how that situation will affect their actions. It is the difference between just knowing a particular problem is happening for an employee or also reacting with positive, supportive action to their situation.
Why is empathy so much more important post-pandemic?
The short answer is because change is unsettling and difficult. When people are living with the ongoing uncertainty created by the Covid outbreak, there is bound to be an elevated level of anxiety. Anxiety, as we all know, is something to be taken very seriously because the impact it has on a business can be monumental. Team members suffering from even low-level stress will generally become less efficient, and if that builds, it can lead to burnout and some serious health issues. On a business level, that is a potential productivity problem, and on a human level, it is an environment we simply would not want to tolerate and definitely not help thrive. Empathy, when applied properly, may not be a universal panacea for stress in the workplace, but it is a useful tool with very clear benefits for everyone.
For many people, the working world has changed for the foreseeable future, if not forever, because of the pandemic. Hybrid working and WFH may well be the new standard, but they are still embedding as such with employees at all levels. Add to this the anxiety of the unknown with rising inflation, furlough ending, the seemingly regular cycles of shortages and other high-level changes such as Brexit, and you being to realise that workforces are bound to react. Empathically skilled leaders will be better equipped to deal with this.
Dispelling a Myth
We need to just set the playing field a little before we get to practical responses.
As to the myth, we need to remember that it is not the case that we are all ‘in it for ourselves’. Spot examples of selfish behaviour tend to grab our attention, but really, they are more the outcome of confirmation bias of our expectations than the rule. People are, as we saw during the pandemic, usually collaborative and willing to get on with each other. Human behaviour is akin to pack behaviour, and it is only when some other motivation overrules that, that we become solitary. Again, empathy is a strong driver in maintaining the collective good mentality.
Practical use of empathy in the workplace
Let’s define empathy as ‘The understanding of another person in terms of their needs, wants and responses to a situation coupled with the ability to accept and act on them where practical’. We can then see clear ways in which managers and leaders can respond empathically to colleagues.
Diversity of thought in the workplace promotes creative solutions and a cohesive team mentality. Empathic handling of diversity helps generate acceptance and inclusion.
The inclusion generated by empathic management and leadership demonstrates to the workforce that you are invested in them as people as well as employees. Inclusion is key to building a workplace where employees feel safe and accepted. This is even more important when dealing with remote teams and hybrid working. Managers who understand the difficulties faced by colleagues who are isolated from the workplace will have a greater understanding of the effects of that isolation. Knowing your workforce better will facilitate the instigation of initiatives that reduce the negative effects of distance working.
- Increased performance
As we noted earlier, the effect of the challenging times we all faced during the pandemic will almost inevitably show as poor performance in at least some of a workforce. Empathic understanding of the root cause allows it to be addressed, and the employee encouraged back to productivity.
- Better relationships
While certainly empathic responses from leaders create better working relationships with their teams, the ripple effect is often better relationships all round.
- Better leadership
There is a saying about needing to stir the heart if you are to lead people to act. An empathic approach to your employees’ problems and situations will result in increased trust in (and therefore loyalty to) management teams. The more you can relate to your employees and appreciate their motivations, the better you will respond as a leader.
When leaders adopt a truly empathic approach, they gain insight into the motivations and needs of their teams. Engaging with this practice doesn’t require that they agree with the needs of the employees or that they encourage behaviours that are unacceptable. It is about taking that understanding and generating a practical response that will benefit the whole workforce.
We at Unleashed have created a development profile – You Unleashed, that helps leaders to assess and develop key leadership skills and behaviours, including empathy. If you’d like to learn more about this, get in touch with us at Hello@unleashed.org.uk.