Extending Empathy to the Professional Space

Image source: Photo by Jason Goodman via Unsplash

Why do we prefer some friends or relatives over others? Maybe because they relate to our emotions and sentiments and they are there for us in times good or bad. This feeling extends beyond family and social settings and pervades the workplace too, thereby highlighting the importance of empathy in the professional space. 

In the simplest of terms, empathy can be explained as the ability to place oneself in another person’s shoes and to be aware of their feelings and understand their needs. 

The tremendous potential of empathy: it can accelerate the healing process

It was for the first time that I was meeting this doctor. He walked in and spent the first few minutes talking to me. As we walked out of the chamber after the visit, my husband made a humorous comment. He said that he knew even before I was examined that the doctor would get a very high approval rating from me. It was the truth. The physician’s kind words bolstered my confidence in his capabilities. I knew I was going to be treated well and that I would recover soon!

A doctor may have the most impressive credentials, but if he or she does not show empathy and gives the impression of being indifferent, it has a toll on the patient’s mental health. Research has shown that a good doctor-patient relationship speeds up the recovery process.  Here, the benefits of being empathetic are two-fold. Not only do the patients heal faster, but doctors, upon seeing the results, are happier and less stressed out.

A stimulus that employees value is empathy!

An impressive job title and a lucrative salary are not the only things to guarantee happiness. If your seniors or your co-workers do not show kindness or compassion, it can be very stifling to carry on with the job.  

Former Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg strongly believes in the power of women supporting one another. The global community LeanIn.Org is her brainchild and seeks women leaders across the globe to professionalize empathy.

Global nonprofit organization Catalyst, which strives to bring positive changes in the lives of women, came up with a creative concept on International Women’s Day this year. The day was celebrated by reimagining the Chief Executive Officer as a Chief Empathy Officer. The idea was to encourage leaders and employees at all levels to lead with empathy and build inclusive cultures within their organizations. 

Research conducted by Catalyst showed that employees with highly empathic senior leaders reported higher levels of creativity (61%) and engagement (76%) than those with less empathic senior leaders (13% and 32%, respectively). 

Another important finding was that 18% of women of color reported interest in leaving an organization with highly empathetic leadership while 33% reported the same when leadership did not display empathy.

How can leaders ensure an empathetic work atmosphere?  There are some ways to do so

Look beyond an employee’s productive best

A friend was once narrating a conversation she had with her manager. One morning, she called to tell her supervisor that she would not be able to come to work because her daughter was sick. “Okay” was all that she got as a response. Her boss should have had the basic courtesy to say, “I hope your child gets well soon!”

It is very important that just as employees are praised to the skies when they give their best, they need to feel that the organization has their backs when they are in any sort of crisis.

Harness the power of listening 

Managers and leaders need to facilitate the process for employees to openly talk about their thoughts and feelings. They need to give a listening ear when their staff members talk about their problems. Open communication paves the way for better employer-employee relationships. 

Individuals need to be allowed to bring their whole selves to work.

In an interesting AWS 2020 chat titled “Women in Leadership”, former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi tells Teresa Carlson (then Vice President of Amazon Web Services) that employees should be allowed to bring their entire ecosystem to work. Nooyi shares: “I talk to people about their family, about any issues they’re going through, and I like to explore how the company can alleviate some of the issues.” She strongly believes that a leader’s sense of empathy results in a rich working environment in an organization.

The interview was conducted during the peak of COVID when people mostly worked remotely. Carlson added how a dash of humor and a display of warmth are the perfect combo to ease stress during trying times: “If you’re on a video conference and your cat walks across the table or your children want to sit on your lap—fine. Let them come in. We have to operate with grace.”

More work hours should not be equated with more productivity

Empathy entails that a leader be sensitive to recognize worker burnout. The quality of work suffers, and the work-life balance is completely disrupted when an employee is loaded with more than what he or she can handle. Leaders need to look out for such signs with extreme caution.

The final note: Empathy binds humanity!

In every sphere of life, empathy is what we all need to inculcate. A house does not become a home in the absence of love, warmth, and understanding. 

Educators cannot hope to expand the learning process unless they delve into the minds of their students. They need to look into a student’s personal and social situations and respond accordingly to their emotions while imparting education.

Similarly an organization can flourish only if its employees are treated with empathy and respect. Therefore, a lot of responsibility rests on the shoulders of its leaders to inculcate soft skills.

American author and motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia had said: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

Happiness is contagious as they say. The same applies for empathy. If leaders in the workplace are empathetic, it causes a rippling effect. A camaraderie blooms between the employees to contribute to a healthy ambience, boosting productivity and contributing to overall success.

(This article was featured in Women’s Web)

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