How can empathy be used as a compass to create a modern, inclusive and high-performing workplace for the future?

The Empathy Manifesto is a three-part series by Catalyst Thinking Partners, Joss Mathieson and Oliver Hansard. In the first part, they explored the need for leaders to use a new suite of behavioural skills to navigate our uncertain world. In part 3, they will explain how leaders can develop the ability to lead more empathetically.

Part 2: Using empathy as a compass to successfully navigate change 

The pressing need for organisations to rapidly change and continuously adapt has become inescapable. However, organisations have choices about how they approach change. We believe that businesses with highly-developed and resilient behavioural skills will be the best equipped to successfully navigate these challenges. At the core of this is empathy.

From our work with leaders and leadership teams, we believe there are four critical dimensions to empathy, which form a useful compass to guide us through change.

The first one of these elements is empathy for yourself. For good reasons, we have heard a lot about wellbeing, resilience and mental health during the coronavirus lockdown, and the need to stay healthy and to be kind to oneself. However, being empathetic to oneself is easier to say than to do. 

If you are working at home, the pressures of working life do not disappear. Indeed, they can multiply with the need to care for children, ageing parents, and/or a partner. The task of finding time for oneself, to reflect and restore, can be very difficult.

But it is essential to be kind to yourself to be empathetic to others. By increasing your awareness of how you are thinking and feeling, this increases your ability to bounce back from setbacks and embrace the positives you can feel grateful for, giving you a better chance to stay positive and be empathetic towards others. 

Being empathetic with your team takes a combination of self-awareness and valiance. Listening to truly understand how your team is feeling (for example, running a staff pulse survey and then having open discussions about the results) and being authentic in communicating and setting goals become key factors in team success over the medium-term. 

In the current environment, being compassionate and understanding about what they can achieve when working remotely is equally critical – for example, for colleagues looking after small children at home, what support do they need to be able to work differently so that they can manage customer relationships as effectively as those who are not parenting? 

Listening, acknowledging, testing and learning are all critical activities to have the best chance of getting the most out of your team. Where these behaviours are demonstrated effectively, managers consistently ask for feedback and at the same time are authentic and honest with their teams about the business’s situation and ambition. If the business reality is kept hidden, or managers fail to listen or act on feedback, staff can become disengaged and hard-earned loyalty can be jeopardised.

Being empathetic on a person to person level is also important as individuals reflect and demonstrate the values and behaviours of their organisation as a whole. Empathy demonstrated by each employee multiplies and becomes a key enabler of a positive culture and brand experience of your wider organisation.

Being empathetic towards your customers requires curiosity and courage to have an open mind. Here the need is to unlearn our assumptions and put ourselves in their shoes to understand and appreciate what they are going through and what they need from us. How can we address our customers’ problems and/or deliver greater value? What do they like and dislike about our current products and services? How do we effectively support customers whose financial situation is very different and more under strain than that of the organisation for which we work? 

How we operate our business needs to reflect the understanding we have of our customers. In these and many other circumstances, empathy is an essential tool which enables us to stop, listen, understand and relate to those we serve. As such, empathy is a real and powerful enabler of commercial success – if you don’t understand your customers and what they think of your brand, your products and services, the likelihood is that your competitors do.

In many respects, organisational empathy is the sum of self, team and customer empathy. These are the building blocks to support and enhance your company’s culture from the bottom up. However organisational empathy should be top-down as well. 

An organisation’s leader must demonstrate empathetic behaviours clearly and consistently and must demand the same of the senior leadership team. The need more than ever is for the CEO to be the Chief Empathy Officer. In the most effective organisations, top-down empathy is reflected in the behaviour of individual leaders, colleagues and teams. 

And of course, if the organisation as a whole can do this effectively, this empowers its relationships with the outside world, with customers and with the broader stakeholder base.

Case study: Demonstrating empathy in challenging times

Without appropriate focus, organisational empathy is nebulous, both difficult to define and difficult to identify. But with the right approach, it is a powerful tool for a business to use in the management of both its employees and its client base. 

One of the best examples of organisational empathy we have come across during the coronavirus pandemic is a global media company which has made it an official policy that every employee, as a part of their working day, can take two hours of work time to manage personal requirements. This might be to home-school children, look after elderly parents, or even have downtime to ensure employee mental well-being and resilience.

On one level, permitting and encouraging all employees to be less “productive” seems a counterintuitive business decision. However, this organisation is taking a long-term view and, by formally adopting this as a policy, is signalling not just empathy but trust in their employees. By treating their staff well, showing they understand the strain under which employees are operating, this trust will be repaid by employees in the future. 

A brave move? Perhaps. However, from an empathetic perspective, this policy makes sense in terms of employee engagement and business performance.

Learning to be more empathetic

There is little doubt that the most successful companies in the future will need to be both highly adaptable and financially robust. To achieve this, the value of “softer” skills cannot be underestimated and empathy will be at the apex of these critical human behaviours.

The good news is, whilst leaders need to authentically demonstrate empathy, it can be learned and developed. According to Businessolver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Survey, 73% of employees believed that empathy can be learned, up from 65% in 2017. Listening, understanding and responding skills can be taught and enhanced to make individuals, and the business as a whole, more effective in the way they operate internally and in terms of how they engage with the world outside their organisation.

In part 3 of this series, we will explain how leaders can develop the ability to lead more empathetically. 

Want to learn more? Contact Joss or Oliver: 

Email joss@catalystthinking.com or oliver@catalystthinking.com 

Call Joss on +44 (0)7717 801205 or Oliver on +44 (0)7703 168082

Book a call