Why We Need More Empathy in the Workplace

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Current times are marked by political division, violence, and economic and social chaos. Relationships, even among friends and family are strained. Loneliness and mental health issues are prevalent.

There is a growing concern for the apparent decline of empathy in America today. A study by the University of Michigan found that college students today are showing less empathy than previous decades, a 40% decline. That is an alarming number.

In an article titled “The U.S. Has an Empathy Deficit,” in Scientific American authors Judith Hall and Mark Leary said “America is a country in deep pain. The coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice, economic insecurity, political polarization, misinformation and general daily uncertainty dominate our lives to the point that many people are barely able to cope. And life wasn’t exactly a cakewalk before 2020. Out of all the fears, stresses and indignities our citizens are living with, there emerges a kind of primal insecurity that undermines every aspect of life right now. It’s no wonder that anxiety, depression and other psychological problems are on the rise.”

The Topic of Empathy is Trending

The number of papers about empathy in psychology journals has increased dramatically (about 50 percent) over time, even when accounting for the general rise of productivity in this field. This scholarly investigation matches popular interest: The number of Google searches for “empathy” in the United States has steadily increased since 2004.

Empathy in the Workplace and in Leadership

Roger Karnes confirms that ‘‘empathy and social skills are under trained and under developed by organizations’’, and explains the downward spiral effect that starts with leadership void of emotional intelligence, leading to less empathy and social skills overall in organizations, expressed through employer–employee abuse, and ending in growing employee discontentment and all its consequences.

Considering the challenges of the fast-paced contemporary organizational environment, Wendy Mill Chalmers draws the interesting conclusion that there should be a positive correlation between hard demands and soft skills. ‘‘The ‘faster’ the workplace the more essential it is to inspirational leadership with emotional intelligence and an empathy and understanding of the development needs of their staff’’.

Mill Chalmers’ adds that modern leaders need to engage in ‘‘21st century enlightenment’’, thereby not just responding to modern values, but shaping them. She reviews the ideology of possessive individualism that has become synonymous with consumer capitalism and democracy, and draws the conclusion that modern capitalism has fed self-interest, greed and unethical behavior, and undervalued empathy.

Empathy in the Workplace and Organizations

The world has changed and leaders need to adapt. Mental health, stress and burnout are now perceived as responsibilities of the organization. The failure to deploy empathy means less innovation, lower engagement and reduced loyalty, as well as diluting your diversity agenda. The good news is that leaders can fix this. You need to show your commitment to empathy; measure progress and implement a series of nudges that will stimulate an empathy revolution. The time is now.

People are quitting because their bosses aren’t empathetic. Here’s how they can make workers feel valued.

Half the workers in an EY survey said they had left a job because their bosses weren’t empathetic to their struggles at work or in their personal lives. Over half of workers in a survey said they had left a job because their bosses weren’t empathetic. The findings arrive as the Great Resignation shows no signs of abating. Experts say managers need to create environments where workers feel valued and understood.

“Empathy is important, but not enough to put significant investment behind it”. That sentiment, expressed by a senior banker, was the dominant position before the COVID-19 pandemic. Empathy was seen as a “nice to have”, something that was warm and fuzzy and made you feel good as a leader, rather than as a tool to expedite growth. For many, it was a tick-box exercise. Management would run empathy training and then everyone would go back to their day job.

Fast-forward 18 months to a global pandemic that resulted in workforce burnout, and empathy is taking on a critical role in company culture. Driven by respected CEOs, such as Jane Fraser at Citi and Satya Nadella at Microsoft, empathy has risen to the top of the board’s agenda.

What’s changed? COVID-19 has pushed us all to our limits. Talent is leaving businesses in droves. Many of us are exhausted emotionally and physically, giving rise to workplace burnout, a WHO-recognized condition described as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is now accepted that burnout resides in workplaces and cultures, not in individuals. Harvard Business Review states that “the responsibility for managing it [burnout] has shifted away from the individual and towards the organization”. It’s the company’s responsibility.

One of the main issues has involved the blurring of home and work life, leading to increased loneliness and social isolation. As Microsoft’s Nadella says: Work from home feels like sleeping at work.” This lack of boundaries, greater financial pressure and fears about job security have resulted in a decline in mental health coupled with increased anxiety.

In a global study by Qualtrics, reported higher levels of anxiety on the effects of the pandemic on mental health: two-fifths (41.6%) of employees in the US thought COVID-19 had harmed their mental health. Two-thirds (66.9%) said they were suffering from stress and over half (57.2%) had increased levels of anxiety.

At the World Economic Forum’s recent Sustainable Development Impact Summit, Evelyna Christina Wever-Croes, the prime minister of Aruba, said it went beyond offering sympathy.“To be empathic is to try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand how people think, what drives people,” she said at a session entitled ‘Women’s Leadership in Times of Crisis’. “Empathy is the single most important quality that we need in all our leaders.”The stereotype of the “hard-nosed, pointy-elbowed, win-at-all-costs” leader was no longer fit for purpose, said Caroline Anstey, CEO of global development non-profit PACT. A more empathetic style is needed, she said.

The 2016 Empathy Index showed that companies that successfully create empathetic cultures retain the best talent, create environments where diversity is valued and reap greater financial rewards. The top 10 companies in the 2015 Global Empathy Index increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50 percent more earnings.

A Mercer 2020 report “Win With Empathy: Global Talent Trends 2020” concluded the following with respect to the United States:

A Businessolver “State of Workplace Empathy” study stated “This year’s results demonstrate that leaders are in greater agreement than ever with their employees on the need for empathy in the workplace, but crucial gaps remain between intentions and implementation. Many organizations still struggle to bring empathy into the workplace.” The report goes on to say:

Leading With Empathy

Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, but it is taking on a new level of meaning and priority. Far from a soft approach it can drive significant business results.

You always knew demonstrating empathy is positive for people, but new research demonstrates its importance for everything from innovation to retention. Great leadership requires a fine mix of all kinds of skills to create the conditions for engagement, happiness and performance, and empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right.

Leaders can demonstrate empathy in two ways. First, they can consider someone else’s thoughts through cognitive empathy (“If I were in his/her position, what would I be thinking right now?”). Leaders can also focus on a person’s feelings using emotional empathy (“Being in his/her position would make me feel ___”). But leaders will be most successful not just when they personally consider others, but when they express their concerns and inquire about challenges directly, and then listen to employees’ responses.

Leaders don’t have to be experts in mental health in order to demonstrate they care and are paying attention. It’s enough to check in, ask questions and take cues from the employee about how much they want to share. Leaders can also be educated about the company’s supports for mental health so they can provide information about resources to additional help.

When people feel understood, they are more receptive to others’ concerns — and team cohesion and collaboration follows suit. Unconditional empathy in the workplace results in an engaged workforce, and that translates into a stable business, even given the current challenges.

Challenging times are when new leaders can be discovered within an organization.

These are the ones who connect on a deeper level with others through genuine concern and empathy to create a more lasting bond. Companies should support emotionally intelligent leaders and managers who show care for their team members. A report by McKinsey & Company concluded that Leaders who establish empathy towards their colleagues have better performing and more satisfied team members. Eighty-six per cent of our people feel that their immediate bosses have become more empathetic during COVID, which has had a positive impact on their performance and fostered a happier work environment. Organizations should focus on striving towards establishing a culture where empathy is central and rewarded as something more valuable than mere efficiency.

Daniel Goleman says empathy helps leaders engage in more collaborative behaviors. For example, he says, they were less judgmental and biased, and more open to the intentions of others. Goleman argues managers with empathy get better than expected performance from their direct reports. Goleman suggests that empathy is related to the innate motivation of followers and helps to solve problems in the workplace because it enables leaders to positive connect with employees, and also more accurately assess employees’ performance.

Jill Kransny, who wrote “The Awesome Power of Empathy,” contends the best leaders at work are the ones who take time to listen to their employees, see other’s perspectives, and understand where an employee may be coming from.

Shelly Levitt writes in “Why the Empathetic Leader Is the Best Leader,” “that helping others, expressing kindness and empathy provides a sensation of feeling good.” Furthermore, she states “Daily practice of putting the well-being of others first has a compounding and reciprocal effect in relationships, in friendships, in the way we treat our clients and our colleagues”.

A study of 1500 leaders and their employees by Audan Farbrot at the Norwegian Business School found that empathetic leaders get greater commitment and performance from their employees. According to the research findings, “Leaders with a strong self-insight demonstrate a good understanding of their own needs, emotions, abilities and behavior. On top of that, they are proactive in the face of challenges.”

Ernest J. Wilson III of the University of Southern California conducted a comprehensive study on empathy in organizations. He reported that so-called “soft” skills like empathy gives leaders a distinctive way of seeing the world. Wilson says “Later, when we reported the results of our research to other leaders, many said empathy was the most important of the five attributes we had uncovered.”

Global training giant Development Dimensions International (DDI) has studied leadership for 46 years. They believe that the essence of optimal leadership can be boiled down to having dozens of “fruitful conversations” with others, inside and outside your organization. Expanding on this belief, they assessed over 15,000 leaders from more than 300 organizations across 20 industries and 18 countries to determine which conversational skills have the highest impact on overall performance. The findings, published in their High Resolution Leadership report, are revealing.

The DDI report reveals a dire need for leaders with the skill of empathy. Only four out of 10 frontline leaders assessed in their massive study were proficient or strong on empathy.

Richard S. Wellins, senior vice president of DDI and one of the authors of the High-Resolution Leadership report, had this to say in a Forbes interview a year ago: “We feel empathy is in serious decline. More concerning, a study of college students by University of Michigan researchers showed a 34 percent to 48 percent decline in empathic skills over an eight-year period. These students are our future leaders! We feel there are two reasons that account for this decline. Organizations have heaped more and more on the plates of leaders, forcing them to limit face-to-face conversations.” While skills such as “encouraging involvement of others” and “recognizing accomplishments” are important, empathy-rose to the top as the most critical driver of overall performance. Specifically, the ability to listen and respond with empathy.

A Catalyst study on empathy in the workplace and the role of leaders reported: “Catalyst surveyed nearly 900 US employees working across industries to understand the effects of empathic leadership on their experiences at work. We found that empathy is an important driver of employee outcomes such as innovation, engagement, and inclusion — especially in times of crisis. In short, empathy is a must-have in today’s workplace. Our current research shows that cultivating empathic leadership is an effective strategy to respond to crisis with the heart and authenticity that many employees crave — and boost productivity.” Among the findings of the study were the following:

In my work as an executive coach working with C-Suite leaders, the issue of empathy (or often the lack of it) frequently arose. For example, A senior executive at a global engineering firm told me the positive effect that being more empathic had on his leadership effectiveness. He reported becoming better able to recognize both the triggers and early signs of stress, anxiety, and conflict in his employees.

This empathic awareness helped him to minimize these issues, and identify opportunities to help others calm themselves and focus.

In contrast, another senior leader that I worked with was having significant problems working effectively with his team. Together we discovered that the main problem was not efficiency, resources or talent, but his often abusive, insensitive leadership style, which was often lacking in empathy and compassion for his team. Unfortunately, he was unable to make the behavioral changes needed, and shortly thereafter was fired from the firm.

Ernest J. Wilson III and his colleagues at the University of Southern California conducted a comprehensive study on empathy in organizations. He reports: “For three years my colleagues and I at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism crisscrossed the U.S. and travelled to other nations asking business leaders what attributes executives must have to succeed in today’s digital, global economy. They identified five as critical: adaptability, cultural competence (the capacity to think, act, and move across multiple borders), 360-degree thinking (holistic understanding, capable of recognizing patterns of problems and their solutions), intellectual curiosity, and, of course, empathy.”

Wilson says these so-called “soft” attributes constitute a distinctive way of seeing the world. Taken together, they create a kind of “Third Space” that differs sharply from the other two perspectives that have long dominated business thinking: the engineering and traditional MBA perspectives. Wilson goes on to report “Later, when we reported the results of our research to other leaders, many said empathy was the most important of the five attributes we had uncovered (though intellectual curiosity and 360-degree thinking were also popular). And this enthusiasm for empathy among business leaders crosses borders. Not only entertainment executives in Los Angeles and IT leaders in Manhattan but also PR professionals in Shanghai and digital businessmen and investors meeting in the Jockey Club in Beijing acknowledged the overwhelming importance of empathy. So did start-up founders in Rome and advertising professionals in Paris.”

Today’s organizations require what the New York Times columnist Adam Bryant has described as a “quick and nimble” management culture. This, in turn, requires leaders to let go of focusing so much on themselves; to let go of the “alpha male” role, as Georg Vielmetter of the Hay Group has called it.Then, they are more able to engage with diverse employees, and from a more humble perspective. Vielmetter pointed out that “The time of the alpha male — of the dominant, typically male leader who knows everything, who gives direction to everybody and sets the pace, whom everybody follows because this person is so smart and intelligent and clever-this time is over. We need a new kind of leader who focuses much more on relationships and understands that leadership is not about himself…who knows he needs to listen to other people…to be intellectually curious and emotionally open…(and) needs empathy to do the job.”

Svetlana Holt and Joan Marques, writing in the Journal of Business Ethics that there is something wrong with today’s corporate world — that its individualistic leaders possess little empathy or inter-human skills. “While there is general consensus about qualities such as intelligence, charisma, responsibility, vision, and passion, there are some ‘softer,’ more emotion driven skills, such as compassion and empathy, that have not been widely accepted as befitting of leadership execution”.

Leadership behavior requires a “vital ingredient,” which is the willingness of the leader to implement particular behaviors. In light of many ethical disasters in today’s contemporary corporate working world, companies are now more than ever seeking empathetic leaders to run organizations and generate positive outcomes.



Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

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Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others