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How To Cultivate Empathy In The Workplace

It’s probably the single biggest management skill needed today. Here's how to create empathy in the workplace.
Empathy in the workplace

The pandemic underscored an important leadership lesson. It has become essential for companies to hire and develop managers capable of moving their organization forward during both good times and bad. That requires looking beyond traditional management development strategies and fostering the skills most critical for success. One of those capabilities is empathy in the workplace—a vital leadership competency. And it’s probably the single biggest management skill needed in today’s workplace.

Compassionate leadership means having the ability to understand the needs of others and being aware of their feelings. Unfortunately, it has long been viewed as a non-essential soft skill. Research, however, shows that empathy in the workplace positively influences job performance. One fascinating study analyzing data from 6,731 managers in 38 countries found that managers who practice compassionate leadership toward direct reports are viewed as better performers by their bosses. And on the flip side, leaders rated as empathetic by their team were also rated as high performing by their boss.

So, how do leaders cultivate empathy in the workplace? The following techniques will help any company achieve ambitious goals while adapting to an ever-changing economic landscape.

Leverage technology

It’s easy to misinterpret a message over text or email as being angry or arrogant. But there’s a company that wants to change all that. Bellevue, Washington-based start-up mpathic plans to fix this problem using empathic AI. To do this, they’ve created plugins that tie into their cloud-based empathy-as-a-service, or EaaS, to help humans talk to each other using real-time text corrections. This way, texts and emails can be reviewed, and changes can be suggested prior to hitting the “send” button. Ultimately, by adding these capabilities into platforms like Slack or Gmail, mpathic hopes to bring more empathy to the corporate communication landscape.

Facilitate conversations at work

With the stress and burnout caused by the pandemic, it is time for leaders to prioritize employee mental health and give employees space to be heard. One example is Zendesk, who began holding “empathy circles.” The company has hosted six empathy circles over 12 months, with roughly 1,000 attendees globally. Generally, the conversations are unstructured, with topics consisting of anything from racism to childcare. So far, 95% of participants have said these sessions helped build a safe space and empathy in the workplace. The purpose of an empathy circle isn’t to focus on a specific outcome but instead to facilitate conversations that open up the possibility for growth and change. Most importantly, it is a space where retaliation and judgment are not tolerated. Just like in Vegas, what happens in the empathy circle, stays in the empathy circle.

Practice empathy marketing

According to research conducted by McKinsey, consumer behavior has changed dramatically due to the pandemic. For one, there has been a shift to online purchasing, as physical stores had to shut down and lockdowns forced people to stay home. Also, tourism was heavily impacted as international travel, and related spend declined dramatically.  To avoid appearing insensitive towards the ongoing crisis, marketing teams have had to rethink their approach by bringing empathy to the forefront. One example is how Nike reacted to the lockdowns with their “Play for the World” campaign. They knew that customers were stuck indoors, so they encouraged people to work out at home instead. Or how Dove promoted a healthy body image through their “Reverse Selfie” campaign—a video showing how digital filters are used to create unrealistic selfie images. Moving forward, any business that strives to relate to its customers and make an emotional connection should consider implementing empathy marketing in its overall strategy.

Undoubtedly, those who excel at empathy in the post-pandemic workplace will more easily build lasting relationships with employees and customers. If workers know their leaders care about them, they will reciprocate with loyalty and dedication. And that’s good for business.


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