The Power of Workplace Empathy

The traditional view of management was to drive business at any cost. Be hard on employees and they will perform. Today’s workplace environment calls for an evolved approach to management and leadership. Today’s managers need to tap other motivators to get results and inspire the best performance at workplace and this is linked to a large extent to Empathy. Empathy is, being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes to understand how they feel. It is more than just listening, it is, responding with insight and awareness. Empathy is an emotional skill you need to understand and practice if you are going to be a great leader.

Empathetic managers recognize that human drive to bond is a workplace motivator. It is a manager’s utmost responsibility to create a work environment that helps employees believe that they are wanted and they belong to the group. Researcher, author and Psychologist, Matthew Lieberman wrote “We all have a need to belong. Signs like others like, admire and love us are central to our well-being.” According to research, empathetic managers have some key characteristics: Sensitive to mood/ emotions/ affect in others, Interested in other’s needs, hopes and dreams, willingness to help employees with personal problems, compassionate when someone discloses personal loss.

Questions to an empathetic manager

Here are some of the questions that managers can ask themselves as you think of becoming a more empathetic manager:

 Do you know what the people in your team are afraid of? Do you know what they are talking about when you are not in the room?

 Do people pick up on your moods, and do you pick up on theirs?

 Do your meetings allow for people to discuss how they feel about things?

Comprehending empathy

In effect, understanding empathy involves viewing it as each person’s connection to the people and the marketplace that surrounds them. A biological principle known as co-evolution explains that the adaptation of an organism is triggered by the change of a related object. Similarly, businesses and their leaders participate in co-evolutiontype relationships. Business success depends on empathetic leaders who are able to adapt, build on the strengths around them, and relate to their environment. When businesses fail, it is often because leaders have stopped focusing on understanding their environment intimately and instead stay insulated in their own operations. Successful business leaders are receptive to disruption and innately aware of what is going on in their organizations both internally and externally.

A tool for effective leadership

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has identified Empathy as a tool for effective leadership. According to CCL, Empathy as a construct is central to Leadership. Many leadership theories suggest that the ability to have and display empathy is an important part of leadership. Transformational leaders need empathy to show their followers that they care for their needs and achievements (Bass, 1985). Authentic leaders also need to have empathy in order to be aware of others. CCL research and work has shown that the nature of leadership is changing, placing a greater emphasis on building and maintaining relationships. Leaders today need to be more personfocused and be able to work with those not just in the next cubicle, but also with those in other buildings, or other countries. For instance, past CCL research, such as the Changing Nature of Leadership or Leadership Gap or Leadership Across Difference shows that leaders now need to lead people, collaborate with others, be able to cross organizational and cultural boundaries and need to create shared direction, alignment and commitment between social groups with very different histories, perspectives, values, and cultures. It stands to reason that empathy would go a long way toward meeting these people oriented managerial and leadership requirements.

Empathic emotion and performance

While empathy is clearly very important, the positive relationship between empathic emotion and performance is greater for managers living in high power distance cultures, making empathy even more critical for managers operating in those cultures. Power distance is defined as the degree to which members of an organization or society agree that power should be stratified and concentrated at higher levels of an organization or government. High power distance cultures believe that power providesharmony and stability.

Empathy enables those who possess it to see the world through the other’s eyes and understand their unique perspectives. Though empathy is almost universally seen as desirable, it is not distributed evenly among all levels of management. According to an unpublished survey of graduates over the past 10 years who now occupy professional positions, empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives: the very people who need it most because their actions affect such large numbers of people. The leader who viscerally understands what other people are feeling and experiencing is someone others want to follow. These leaders attract talent, and people are loyal to them. During a period of high growth, it is harder to make the case for EI because almost everybody does well. The question to ask is what would be the value added if we did this. There is data that suggests that all things remaining equal, leaders who have emotional abilities have better business results.

The keys to empathy are:

 Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

 Listen to their words and tone of voice, and watch their body language. Try to understand what they are feeling.

 Put their feelings into words. Keep it simple and use your own words.

 Avoid repeating exactly what the other person has said.

 Do not worry about being exactly right. The important thing is to listen closely and show that you are trying to understand.

 Give the person a chance to respond to your comments.

Empathy is critical skill for effective leadership for one, simple reason — trust.If your employees don’t trust you, you are not a leader; you are just a manager. A key component for building trust with others is empathy. When you show that you are aware of your employees’ feelings and appreciate those feelings, even when you don’t agree with them, it builds trust. The employee has faith that you will at least take their feelings into consideration. You can then use this understanding of their feelings to then give your employees what they need to succeed, further strengthening your relationship, increasing collaboration and improving productivity.Without empathy, your employees will always have their guards up. They will always feel like they have to look out for their own emotional interest. While with an empathetic leader, the employee knows that their feelings will never be simply overlooked or ignored.

When it comes to improving EI skills ask yourself honestly: does this matter to me? If it really doesn’t matter, you’re not going to do it. Building EI is different from academic learning. It’s skill building. There are concrete behaviors that you improve, like listening. Also, Empathy begets empathy. Behind every successful manager, you are likely to find a leader who has mastered the skill of empathy.

To summarize, being empathetic is not always easy. You may need to work hard to understand someone who is fundamentally different from you, confront negative feelings you have about that person, or address your fear that your empathy will send false signals. The secret is to understand what is influencing your reactions. Work hard to put yourself in the other’s shoes and interact with her as a whole person. It’s amazing how good you will feel.

Dr Manavi Pathak

Dr Manavi Pathak is an Organizational Psychologist and Consultant. She can be reached at manavi24@gmail.com

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