Empathy isn’t something that we’re hearing for the first time, but what is unique is that it’s finding its way into our business culture and vocabulary. In fact, in 2017 the Merriam- Webster dictionary identified empathy as the fourth most searched word of the year. This means that it really matters to us, and it’s here to stay. Instilling empathy in the workplace isn’t one of those nice-to-haves that you need to implement so that your people are happy and productive.

Quite the opposite! It’s a long-term strategic culture decision that an organisation makes if it wants to experience satisfied customers, an engaged workforce, and a financially healthier business.

What is empathy?

The most common definition of empathy is the ability to understand and experience the feelings and thoughts of another person. The aim is to get a better understanding of the other person’s perspective on a situation. Expressing empathy creates a positive and trusted connection among people; however, as always, we’re complex creatures and so we need to distinguish between the different types of empathy. American Psychologists, Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman classified empathy into the following three types.

  1. Cognitive empathy: the ability to distil how a person is feeling, and understand their thoughts. Developing cognitive empathy means being a good communicator because you can connect with the person at their ideal cognitive point.
  2. Emotional empathy: the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It’s about really understanding and intensely relating to another person’s emotions. Emotional Intelligence is the skill that assists you to build emotional connections with others.
  3. Compassionate empathy: is a combination of cognitive and emotional empathy, but has the additional component of being able to assist the person to take action to resolve their situation.

We all like to be understood and for others to consider – or at least listen to – our perspective. So, empathy is a two-way street, and you’ll receive as much as you give. It requires patience and practice, but it enriches relationships, minimises conflict, and improves problem-solving.

Empathy in the workplace

The workplace is busy and we can get distracted by many things that continuously call for our attention. A client’s urgent deadline, a project that requires our input, wrapping our head around new systems, and managing a demanding colleague are all examples of things that distract us from focusing on empathy. We think that once a particular manic period is over, and a certain project has been completed, we’ll focus on empathy, but that day seldom comes because something more pressing always gets in the way. Empathy isn’t something you can squeeze into your workplace culture when you have time. It’s a strategic decision you make if you want to ensure your organisation remains profitable.

Sounds harsh, I know, but it’s the reality. Let’s look at some facts and figures to substantiate my comments.

  • The 2017 Gallup State of the Global Workplace report showed that high-performing employees who are not engaged at work will consider leaving. The only thing that would keep them there is empathy. Employers need to provide an environment in which high-performing employees are recognised and supported to achieve their career goals, where their needs are met, and where there is a work-life balance.
  • The 2018 Bussinessolver® State of Workplace Empathy reveals that 93% of employees say they’re more likely to stay with an empathetic employer. This figure proves that empathy as an organisational culture isn’t a nice-to-have, but a must-have. In fact, 92% of employees believe that empathy is undervalued in their organisation
  • In the same survey, CEOs unanimously link an organisation’s financial performance to the level of empathy. The reason for the financial boost is that employees would be willing to work overtime for an empathetic organisation.
  • The 2016 Harvard Business Review highlighted that the ten most empathetic companies generate 50 percent more earnings than those at the bottom of the index.
  • Finally, Businessolver’s 2018 survey has ascertained that instilling empathy as a core value into the DNA of a business has a direct bearing on the workplace culture, innovation, productivity, and profitability.

These facts and figures might feel overwhelming to you, but you should use them as a motivator and a little nudge to start introducing empathy as a core value in your organisation.

What organisations are’t acknowledging

All the surveys and statistics show that empathy in the workplace really does matter, but you have to decide whether you’re ready to embrace this change.

Can you accept that empathy is what is going to motivate, unite, and connect people within your organisation? You may be sceptical and follow the “wait and see” approach, or believe that empathy doesn’t really apply to you. Then perhaps you should consider these four facts that all call for empathy in the workplace.

Firstly, women are becoming an equal representation in the workforce, and feel that organisations are only 33% empathetic and can do more. Women are dissatised with organisations’ low levels of empathy, and CEOs are aware that women in leadership positions would enhance the empathy quotient.

Secondly, employees are increasingly concerned and fearful about the use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) in the workspace. Are we even sure how AI will impact on our job security and the ability to connect with customers and colleagues?

Thirdly, despite the technology and online platforms, employees still value face-to-face communication the most because it’s easier to share and feel each other’s empathy. More efficient communication methods such as video conferences, emails, and text message definitely lose the empathy factor.

Finally, empathetic organisations attract and retain talent because it drives collaboration and innovation, and makes employees feel like they belong.

In summary

Empathy impacts on how we engage with others in the workplace and outside of it, as well as how we experience our daily life. The chances are that if you encountered empathy today, you’ll pay it forward and give to someone else.

Be part of the empathy revolution, and start thinking how you can instil a more empathetic culture into your organisation today.

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

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