Why Your Business Should Put Empathy First
It’s no secret that business philosophies have undergone tremendous changes over the years, especially during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. While the mid-70s brought about a wave of profit-driven business ideologies, this kind of mindset holds a limited space in the workplace today. The ‘all work, no play’ business approach created millionaires, giant monopolies and reaped enormous profits (albeit for the top 1%), but it also gave way to the most anxious, depressed and stressed workforce the world has arguably ever seen.
Today, organizations that value empathy are taking flight, owing to a massive shift in how both employees and business-owners view productivity and compassion in the work environment.
But what really caused this shift in mindset? Why is it important that businesses today put empathy first? And what does an empathetic workplace truly look like? In this article, we answer all these questions and more.
The New Normal
It’s safe to say that most of us desperately want things to go back to “normal”, but with the worst of the pandemic now over, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the “normal” has likely changed forever. If there’s anything good that came out of the pandemic, it’s how it has forced us all to reevaluate our lives, both personally and professionally. A majority of us have found ourselves questioning our approach to money, how we work, and how we define success or productivity in the workplace, and the result of that questioning is now becoming clear.
Working during Covid proved that there is a bigger need for empathy, compassion, communication and support in the workplace than ever before. While there are methodologies businesses can adopt to manage the physical impact of the pandemic on their revenue and profits, none of us could’ve really predicted or prepared for the drastic emotional impact Covid would have on us all.
With a record number of people quitting their jobs in 2020, (3.9 million people in the US in June alone), it is clear that a majority of employees are no longer willing to settle for a workplace where their human needs, mental and emotional health are not put first. As a response, organizations went through a massive reinvention, emerging out of the pandemic with a different set of priorities, empathy being on top of the list. This makes it obvious that empathy is no longer an option, but instead ‘the new normal’- a critical element that all businesses must-have.
The Importance of Empathy
While empathy in the workplace cannot be definitively quantified, it is clear that it is now an unquestionable prerequisite for employees searching for new jobs. According to Businessolver, 1 in 3 workers would leave their job for a more compassionate environment, while 56% would stay in their job simply if they felt more valued. These numbers prove that unconditional empathy in the workplace is essential for not only retaining employees but for establishing a healthy work culture where every single person feels heard and respected.
The pandemic has given birth to a generation of workers that are demanding to be seen as more than just commodities or automatons to churn out profit, and rightly so. Although empathy’s value in business isn’t entirely a new idea, companies have historically preferred to prioritize profit over their employees- the pandemic has only further propelled a revolution in the business mindset that has been a long time coming.
Why Businesses Struggle With Empathy
While 60% of CEOs believe their company is empathetic, only 24% of their workers reflect this sentiment. This shows that there is a clear divide between what company owners regard as an empathetic culture and the standards to which their employees would hold them.
These numbers point to a bigger problem- If empathy is so great for employee loyalty, engagement and for overall collaborative work culture, why is it that businesses struggle to adopt it?
This lack of an empathetic work environment can largely be traced back to the fact that many businesses are still stuck in the 70s toxic work-cycle and grind culture, and have failed to evolve with time and acknowledge that their employees’ mindsets and needs are changing. But there are several other factors that can contribute to this drastic communication gap between CEOs and their workers. Firstly, implementing an empathetic and compassionate work culture across your company isn’t exactly easy. Oftentimes, it requires that business owners reevaluate how their business operates and introduce major changes in their workings, and this isn’t something they are always willing to do. Empathy demands that both company leaders and regular workers take the initiative to get closer to their coworkers and connect with them on a human level, which requires a conscious, organizational-wide effort.
Trying to build an empathetic culture also means that business owners have some tough self-realization to perform. It requires shedding your perceptions about how happy your employees are and genuinely trying to listen to their concerns and figuring out ways to improve. Oftentimes, this means that business owners will have to look at the failures of their company right in the face, and this obviously is no easy task. But this acknowledgement that things need to improve is the very first step to building a compassionate and collaborative workplace and will help get rid of that big divide between business owners and their workers.
The bottom line is that empathy is vital, and these challenges are no excuse to not try. Non-empathetic employers are losing talented employees faster than ever, and the pandemic has proven that the need for genuine, empathetic businesses can no longer be ignored.
How Can You Centralize Empathy in the Workplace?
While putting a number on empathy is quite tricky, there are still many practices that you can follow in order to provide your workers with a genuine, open and empathetic work environment. Some of these are discussed below.
Oftentimes, employees do not feel comfortable approaching you with their problems themselves, especially if they’ve only recently joined your company. In order to be an empathetic leader, the responsibility falls on you to ask. If you sense that a usually excellent-performing employee isn’t giving their best, make an effort to reach out to them. Find out if something is wrong in either the workplace or their personal life, and offer to help where you can. Or if an employee is approaching you with a concern that seems vague, ask them thoughtful questions that can help you get to the root of their problem. This is especially important for newly-hired workers. Make it a point to ask them how they’re fitting in, be open to their feedback at the end of each day, and try and be available however you can.
Remember, empathy does not require grand gestures- simply asking the right questions can go a long way.
While most business owners and CEOs pride themselves on being good listeners, unfortunately, that is often not the reality. According to a Gallup 2013 report, about 30% of employees feel that their opinions don’t matter in the workplace, and this number is likely to have scaled up in the past years.
Sure, asking direct and open questions is important- but are you really listening to what your employees have to say in reply, or are you only claiming to?
Actively listening to employees is a conscious practice that requires significant effort on your part. You can use regular questionnaires to assess your employees’ workplace satisfaction or schedule in-person discussions where needed. A large part of active, effective listening involves making yourself reachable and available. Don’t be an estranged, curt boss. Instead, try and let your employees know that you are willing to listen to them, and also mirror your behaviour to add weight to the claims you are making.
Creating Meaningful Connections
A truly empathetic culture is built from top to bottom and is visible in all interactions within a company. As the company leader, it’s important that you don’t keep your coworkers at arm’s length. Being professional and being cold are two different things, and learning and appreciating this distinction is vital when establishing an empathetic environment.
Try and connect with your workers on a more human, personal level. Learn about who they are, what they like, how they communicate and how they work. Ask them about their day, exchange a friendly word or two and appreciate or compliment their work wherever they deserve. Introduce ‘happy hours’ or friendly team coffee-break discussions where you strictly talk about things outside of work.
If you as the company leader normalize these practices in the workplace, your employees are likely to follow suit and thus perform much better as a result. Building positive work relationships is important, as it helps you learn about your coworkers and employees as actual humans rather than job positions or email addresses, and thus enables you to practice empathy better.
Respect & Consideration
Respecting your coworkers and employees as human beings with flaws and emotions is at the heart of an empathetic work culture. While these might seem like basic practices that are a given in all workplaces, the reality is far from that. The Gallup Report details how 60% of employees feel that nobody in their workplace seems to care about them as an individual. This points towards a major problem with work environments today, where workers are seen as disposable commodities that can be replaced at a second’s demand, and not actual human beings with struggles of their own.
Empathy aims to counter exactly that and emphasizes forming personal connections and respecting workers as people and not just their job title or responsibilities. This doesn’t mean that you don’t focus on profit and growth and let your employees get away with whatever they want. It simply means extending the benefit of the doubt to all individuals in your company, critiquing their work in a respectful and professional manner, and understanding that they have lives and struggles outside of the workplace.
According to Businessolver, 42% of consumers would refuse to buy from a company they don’t believe is empathetic. In this era of political correctness and to satisfy heightened consumer demands, most companies put on a façade of empathy, concern and regard for their employees and society in general, but don’t actually live up to their claims. Many business owners and CEOs believe that they only have to pretend to care, but it’s obvious that this scheme no longer works.
In today’s time, both employees and customers are more aware of what they expect from the company, and hold businesses to higher moral standards. This makes it extremely important for businesses to be as genuine as they can. Practising empathy is not just so you can market yourself as considerate and welcoming, it’s about truly caring for the people that help make your company what it is.
Be Open To Learning
While 60% of CEOs think that workplace empathy is important, 31% of employees feel that their supervisors value profits more. This shows that there is a heightened awareness amongst business owners about the vitality of empathy, but many don’t know how to implement this properly and fail to make their employees feel that they are valued.
It’s important to remember that everybody can practise empathy, and now is always a good time to start. An empathetic workplace isn’t magically born overnight. It requires consistent work and some tough self-reflection. Learning how to be patient, communicative and thoughtful is an ongoing journey instead of a destination, and it’s very important to keep an open mind throughout.
What Empathy is not
If after reading this article, you’re planning on instilling empathy to reap more profit or present your business in a better light, you have missed the point entirely. Yes, empathy does lead to better business performance and greater employee retention, but it’s not a methodology or hack to serve this purpose. There are thousands of technologies, practices and systems that can help make your business more automated and efficient, but empathy is about remembering to be considerate and adding a much-needed human touch to your business operations.
At its core, empathy is about remembering to be human, something that most of us have been taught to leave behind in business interactions. Your reason for establishing an empathetic work culture shouldn’t be so that your business can profit more, because that mindset again prioritizes profit over genuine care. Empathy isn’t a ‘nice to have’ business tactic, it’s a vital culture that requires conscious effort to maintain. Businesses can still make a profit while remembering to be human, and that’s what empathy is all about.
What Does An Empathetic Work Environment Look Like?
An empathetic work environment is where employees are given genuine space to voice their concerns and struggles, and where business owners meet them on their wavelength and listen with an open mind. Companies practising empathy help their workers tap into their greatest potential, and establish a collaborative culture where every single person feels that they are part of the same team and working towards a shared goal.
Creating an empathetic workplace is about centralizing human relationships and ultimately, leading from the heart. And while that sounds wonderful, it’s seriously tough work. Trying to be more empathetic will force you to reconsider your current business operations, change your hiring priorities, reevaluate your firing decisions and employee training procedures, and prepare to rejuvenate your business entirely. While on this journey, you might be confronted with some feelings that are uncomfortable, but learning empathy is all about sitting on that discomfort and allowing it to guide you towards a better, more human business approach.
If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. You can’t wave a magic wand and transform your workplace in a day- it requires diligence, commitment and a strong drive to be better. But even though working towards an empathetic workplace can be challenging, it is ultimately very worth it. If you build a considerate work culture with genuine relationships, transparency and heightened communication, you are ultimately creating space for high-performing, dedicated individuals that actually want to work for you. Empathy is key to a long-lasting, successful business- if you show your employees you care, they’ll care for you and your company in return.
Leading From The Heart- Where To Begin
We realize that this idea might sound overwhelming, but it really needn’t be. You can start with baby steps- ask your current employees how they feel working with you and use their feedback to strive for genuine improvement in the future. Schedule a team meeting where you perform some team-building exercises or plan a dinner where you can connect with your employees outside of work. Most importantly, reevaluate yourself, challenge your long-held opinions about employee treatment, and prepare to implement some major changes. In the end, we promise it will all be worth it.
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