Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Showing That You Care - How Empathy Helps at Work

3 years back, the UK business magazine “Management Today”, along with the Institute of Leadership and Management, carried out a survey of approximately 2500 managers and non-managers each to determine how much trust employees have in the CEOs who run their organizations. 47% of those surveyed felt that leaders had done a good to very good job managing their companies through the recession.

Where things get interesting, though, is when they compared the trust levels attained by male and female CEOs. For the second year in a row, female CEOs rated higher trust levels than male CEOs. Interestingly male employees have a greater level of trust in female CEOs than those who work for male CEOs.

So what’s behind this growing divergence in trust levels employees have for female CEOs over male CEOs?

After careful analysis, the answer lay in - 'Empathy'
“Empathy means demonstrating concern and listening to reach an understanding of others ideas and feelings.”

Do not confuse empathy with sympathy; when you are sympathetic it means that you are relating to the feelings of another person given a particular situation. When you are empathetic you are able being able to understand the needs of others, you are aware of their feelings and the resultant behaviour. It does not mean you have to agree with how they see things; you are only willing and able to appreciate what the other person is going through.

The stereotypical woman is said to be 'soft' but that is the not why the women gained higher levels of trust.  One of the main reasons, female CEOs rated such high trust levels was because they were knowledgeable “of what their employees have to contend with in their day-to-day lives”. They were aware of and understood what hardships their employees faced, regardless of whether the CEO could do anything to improve the situation.
I do not want to get into a male vs. female debate, but what I would like to highlights that CEOs or leaders of any sex need to understand their employees better by understanding the environment and interpreting the information they are getting. Empathetic people are aware or appreciative of the circumstances their employees face.
  • What do leaders and their organisations need to do (men or women) – to demonstrate more empathy to their employees/ subordinates?
1. Leaders need to become more familiar with the day-to-day issues their employees face.
Typically leaders focus on results from tasks given to persons or teams. However such a unidirectional approach can prevent the leader from looking at other factors which can affect the employee's output/ productivity. For example, I have noticed that when some members of an organisation were laid off, it even affects the morale of personnel from other departments. There is a fear that they themselves maybe the next on the chopping block.  While this may sound trivial, however productivity will surely suffer. "Connect with an individual at a human level before beginning work," suggested Miyashiro, founder of Elucity Network.
2. By understanding the needs of the employees the leader and the organisation can develop bonds and hence closer relationships
"If you wish to know the mind of a man, listen to his words" – Johann W Von Goethe
Understanding the needs can help the organisation provide support to deal with the problems and challenges that the employees are facing. Problems can affect productivity and this can be an impediment to achieving the organisational goals. Once relationship bridges are built, employees will learn to trust the leader and organisation which again results in a further strengthening of trust and relationships. The positive aspects are self-explanatory.

3. Leaders need to be emotional resilient.
It takes emotional resilience to have those crucial conversations with employees—to hear about the challenges going on in their home life, to see them struggle with conflicts with fellow employees etc. Leaders need not be swayed by emotions but take a practical approach.

4. Leaders need to be patient, have good listening skills, unbiased, open to criticism and posses high emotional intelligence. 
Leaders will have to listen attentively to their employees are not treat them with frivolity.  They need to listen a lot more and then talk rather than the other way around. They should not come with preconceived notions. When you listen more, the employees talk more and are usually more open about the problems they face. Leaders gain a greater awareness of the needs of their employees.

5. Focus on others.
Take a personal interest in people. Show that you care, and be genuine about it. When leaders focus on others then it shows that the leader or the organisation is a people’s person. Empathy is a natural human trait it just needs to fine-tune in many individuals.
When personal interest is taken, there is a one to one relationship built. When a leader establishes such a bond then it shows that he or she cares for the individual and the employee is recognised as a person rather than no-name. People can see through leaders who fake it, so it is important that leaders and organisations be genuine about it.

6. When leaders understand their  teams, they face challenges better.
There is bound to be togetherness when leaders understand their teams. There is a sense of belonging and more teamwork. This helps the organisation and its leaders to not only face challenges together but also battle any mistakes as a team. Infact the team will be willing to shoulder some of the blame! There are also other positive actions which will result. For example – the employees will know that they will not be made scapegoats. Poor performances will be borne by the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’. Through teamwork even employees who have been struggling can come up to speed.

7. Empathy takes time and hard work, leaders and organisations need to do so.
In today’s result oriented world, people tend to focus more on meeting deadlines than on the people who will help meet the results. Leaders and organisations don’t want to spend that time required to do so.  It is not easy to understand employees easily. Secondly, showing any form of empathy can be perceived as a form of weakness. Thirdly, people can also perceive it to be sign of building a group within the organisation. By spending more time learning about the needs of their employees, leaders can set the tone and approach taken by their employees to achieve their organization’s goals.

8. Create a culture of empathy
“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”. – Theodore Roosevelt
The culture in an organisation has to be of sharing and giving. The organisation and it leaders need to create an environment of understanding and allow employees to be more vocal of their problems and issues. A singular focus on financial goals is detrimental.  The leaders need to be more open about their ideas and also create an open culture too. Leaders also need to understand the inner aspirations/purpose of the employees and channel them to achieve the organisational goals. Empathy allows you to create an environment of open communication and more effective feedback.
I can think of two great examples of organisations who practice empathy. One is from India - Tata Group and the other from the USA - Southwest Airlines. There have been umpteen stories written about them so it is a mere repetition if I were to talk about it. The fact that they have been extremely successful in the businesses they are in is perhaps the best way to showcase how successful empathy works at the workplace.

In trying to address the apparent lack of empathy in today’s workplace, it’s important that we recognize that, much like an organization’s culture, it doesn’t come down to one element, but a series of inter-related behaviours and biases which serve to reinforce how leaders and their team perceive the value of empathy in business.

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