Nationwide, the use of the word “empathy” has significantly increased over the past three years. Empathy towards essential workers throughout COVID. Empathy for those who have different life experiences than us. Even learning how to be empathetic towards oneself. The very nature of empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”, and for the first time in a big way, vulnerability and emotions have found their way into the workplace.
A company that boasts about their people-first culture must also practice a culture of empathy. In plain words, your people have to know that they matter to the company. Not just their performance, or their technical contributions, but they as individuals matter in a very humanized way. A team that feels heard and supported on both a personal and professional level will exhibit a stronger connection to their work, higher participation in collaborative efforts, and lower rates of burnout. Whether you are looking to strengthen the empathy already instilled in your organization, or are committed to creating change, here are 6 ways to build a culture of empathy within your workplace.
1. Lead By Example
Unlike the “cilantro tastes like soap” gene, empathy isn’t something you’re born with. It is a skill that needs to be adopted and strengthened, much like critical thinking or effective communication. In order to build a culture of empathy, leadership must set the scene and lead by example by actively utilizing professional empathy and urging others to challenge themselves to be empathetic. Include empathy in your company messaging, and recognize others for applying this value real time. This regular frequency will create a new company standard, and employees will feel more moved to start building on their individual use of this skill.
2. Create A Safe Space
Empathy is not only about the way we react to another person’s feelings, but also how we welcome them. Create a safe space for employees to feel comfortable offering feedback. During your discussions, practice active listening skills. Make eye contact, show empathetic body language (uncross your arms, please), and offer small verbal responses so the speaker knows you are engaged in the conversation. When an employee comes to you with feedback or to discuss a challenge, do not end the conversation without having an immediate plan of action to either support the employee or to ensure a similar situation does not occur in the future.
3. Acknowledge The Silent Participants
During large group discussions (think team meetings or white boarding sessions) always make it a point to encourage a silent participant. Gently encourage someone who doesn’t typically speak up to offer their opinion. Remind them of their value to the discussion and give recognition of their expertise.
4. Have The Hard Conversations
This has been a big shift for companies over the past few years, but it is imperative that the hard-to-have conversations are prioritized. Whether you get the team together to discuss mental health and psychological safety, or inclusivity and equality, make sure to remove the stigma from those topics in your workplace. Employees need to know that their adversities are seen, and that they matter. Having an open discussion about these challenges now, leaves the door open for employees to come forward when they are struggling with challenges such as burnout, harassment, or other difficult to discuss topics.
5. Be Willing To Adjust
We are a productivity-driven workforce. Projects are named, tasks are assigned, and deadlines are expected to be met. So what happens when an employee comes to you and shares that they are having trouble completing what they committed to? Or, when someone has an idea that could make the project better if only they had more time or resources. Consider dismissing your initial emotional reactions (frustration, maybe anxiety?) and hear them out. These unexpected events that throw curveballs at our plans happen often, but by responding with empathy and then creating an adapted plan of action you are communicating to your team that flexibility is an option in response to changes.
6. Acknowledge The Whole Experience
What would happen if you took a more holistic view when sharing an experience? That includes acknowledging the emotional part. By accepting that there is an emotional component to most of our interactions with others, you have the opportunity to adjust your contribution. This may look like reassuring an anxious candidate before continuing an interview. Or, hearing out a frustrated employee while they are processing a roadblock in their work. This could also be setting aside some time to help a colleague prepare for a presentation they are nervous about.
These small efforts, in addition to the commitment to continuous improvement, create the foundation for a culture that prioritizes the people that make up the organization. By taking the extra steps to humanize the working experience, employees will know that they are showing up for a company that shows up for them. When planning for the next manager training or company-wide meeting, consider nominating for empathy as a top runner for discussion.