The world we live in now is very different from a mere decade ago. Our lives are now shaped by technology and everything from how we talk, find love and share memories has changed in the digital age.
In this hyper-connected world, empathy has never been more important. We need it to understand different cultures, perspectives, experiences, and realities. But sadly, we’re in the midst of a 30-year decline of empathy levels worldwide, and the impact of this is stark. Two of empathy’s greatest enemies are low time and high stress. When you look at many leaders today, they aren’t doing enough to alleviate these factors in the workplace.
Increased levels of loneliness and anxiety are being felt worldwide, and we’re experiencing higher levels of suicide than at any other time in our history. Unsurprisingly, calls for better emotional wellbeing support in the workplace has been growing in order to tackle the dramatic rise in levels of burnout across industries, sectors and organizations.
What makes your team tick
As our collective understanding of the impact of a lack of empathy and connection grows, we must also see more companies implement tools and strategies that enable employees to be more connected, more aligned, and to work more cohesively. Nearly all industries are built on and by people, so leaders must ensure they are doing everything they can to build and nourish the teams running and managing their brands. However, without understanding the realities of your employees and their diverse viewpoints and experiences, it is nearly impossible to inspire teams and drive organizational success.
The last few years have forced us to reset and reassess what should count as business as usual as we look towards a better future – one that puts empathy at the center.
A better future
Empathy is our evolutionary ability to see the world from the perspective of another and to recognize the unique set of experiences and viewpoints which shape their reality.
In the modern workplace, the ability to understand the opinions and experiences of others sets businesses apart from their competitors and significantly drives team performance, creative output, and long-term customer loyalty. Metaphorically standing in the shoes of another and seeing their perspective of the world enables a level of critical thinking and emotional intelligence that can help business leaders and brands to pivot into new markets, launch new products, and, most importantly, understand why something failed.
It also provides an improved understanding of how the world works now and will work in the future and enables team leaders to provide the required support for their teams and businesses to thrive in these environments.
Nature versus nurture It’s a common misconception that some of us are born more empathetic than others, or that sympathy or compassion are synonyms of this critical leadership skill. But research has proven that empathy is an ability that we can develop and refine – as long as we actively choose to do so.
Think back over the last couple of years and the reaction to the outbreak of COVID-19. Many people began to reach out to others to offer support in their communities, and when remote working became a key part of our lives, some organizations offered employees allowances to purchase home-office equipment and set up the best environment to support their productivity. Such a move is a great example of empathy and understanding that employees require different support when their circumstances change.
In the digital world, where many of our connections are based around shared online moments, empathy is key to ensuring we are all able to do – and feel – our best.
Humans are wired to value being seen, heard, and understood. We do not perform or think at optimal levels if we are not treated as whole beings with a life outside of our screens and schedules. Because of this, managers must ensure they are creating connections amongst their employees – be that within remote or globally distributed teams, or with those they sit next to in the office. This could be through setting up weekly informal catchups, where different employees can connect on a more personal level and bring to the table any challenges they’ve faced throughout the week. Opening honest and empathetic communication routes helps to generate trust amongst a team and creates a company culture where people are able to bring their full selves to work and feel like they belong, knowing they will be respected and valued by their colleagues and managers for more than just their output.
Adopting an empathetic and human-centric approach to leadership is an operational and cultural shift that demonstrates the true soul and values of a company. Focusing on an employee’s talents, strengths and behaviors that make them uniquely human proves that they are working in brands that truly reflect what they consider to be important, and which values the contributions they make to achieving the goals of both the individual and the organization. With many employees continuing to evaluate their career plans for the long term and seeking opportunities that align with their core values, such a move could position your brand as the employer of choice and make a huge difference to your employee retention levels.
As we move forward into 2023 with the potential of a recession and many challenges ahead, managers and business leaders must remember that, above all else, your business is your people. Whatever you sell or provide, your team is who will ensure your success in the months and years ahead, and leaders would be foolish to ignore their needs and expectations when developing your organization’s culture and strategies for the future. Developing an empathetic work culture takes time, and whilst it might not be the quick fix you hope for, it could be the difference between your company’s failure and your success.
5 tips to become a more empathetic manager
1. Ask questions: Stay curious and get to know your team on a personal level so you understand what motivates, inspires and energizes them.
2. Be patient: When speaking to your team, avoid interrupting them in conversations and allow them to share their stories in their own time.
3. Consider yourself: Self-empathy is an incredibly important skill, so make sure you consider your own needs and how you are best energized and engaged, and make others aware of it.
4. Ditch the distractions: Put your phone away, turn off your laptop, and give your full attention to your team.
5. Engage with what’s being said: Practice active listening and positive body language by making eye contact and keeping your body open whilst talking to someone.
Mimi Nicklin is a leading empathy expert, bestselling author of Softening The Edge, the creative CEO and founder of global branding agency Freedm, and the founder of the organizational empathy platform Empathy Everywhere.