Many people are quick to dismiss so-called “soft skills.” These skills might include communication, active listening, mediation, negotiation, or (the topic of this blog post) empathy. In truth, there is nothing “soft” about these skills. They are just as vital as company finances or operations. In fact, companies that lack these soft skills are far less likely to succeed than companies that embrace them.
Picture a company that lacks empathy (which can be defined as the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others). In such a company, the leadership team doesn’t see its workers’ humanity—the very real struggles, needs, and emotions people grapple with every day. Instead, it sees numbers and productivity. In such an environment, the company doesn’t see the point of offering paid parental leave, or mental health resources, or affinity groups for underrepresented people. It may do the bare minimum to comply with laws and retain its workforce, but anything beyond that is considered superfluous.
Would you want to work in this kind of cold, calculating environment? If not, you’re certainly not alone.
According to a 2021 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), an astounding 97 percent of respondents consider empathy “an essential quality of a healthy workplace culture,” while 92 percent intentionally seek organizations with a strong track record of empathy when job hunting.
But how can you infuse an organization with empathy? It’s certainly more complicated than enrolling in an empathy lunch-and-learn or adding an empathy policy to the company’s handbook! Even so, there are several steps company leadership can take to infuse the organization with greater empathy and pave the way to a more empathetic future.
1. Communicate and Learn Others' Perspectives
Communicating often and openly can help you better connect with your team and allow them to provide feedback. Empathy often starts with communication, but it’s not enough to simply talk with someone. You have to genuinely listen, enter the conversation with an open mind, and be willing to consider others’ perspectives.
2. Show Genuine Interest in Your People
The core of empathy is fairly straightforward: treat others as the unique individuals they are. Instead of only discussing work projects and progress, take a few minutes to get to know the person across the table (or on the other side of the screen). Learn about their interests, their families, and how they feel about the work they’re doing. If you’re talking privately, you might dig a little deeper and ask about their struggles—anything that’s making work difficult at the moment.
You might find out someone is caring for ailing parents, or raising three young children, or dealing with severe health issues. Once you learn about a person’s struggles, you can then work to support them.
3. Make Decision-Making Collaborative
Companies that lack empathy don’t bother engaging employees and soliciting feedback when making major decisions that will affect many people. This was clearly demonstrated when workplaces mandated returning to the office once the COVID pandemic began to cool off. Many workers did not respond well! A flexible work schedule was incredibly helpful for anyone with children, a long commute, or alternative ways of working (using a speech-to-text program, having more focus/energy at night, etc.). Not to mention, these return-to-work policies often disregarded those with chronic illnesses or other vulnerabilities whose health or safety could be at risk in in-person environments.
After requiring their people to return to the office, many companies experienced a backlash, which led to a slew of protests and resignations.
This situation could have been avoided if companies simply talked to their people, surveyed their work preferences, and listened to their input. Perhaps most people would have been content with returning to the office two days each week. Or maybe exceptions could have been made on a case-by-case basis.
The bottom line: show empathy by involving your people in major decision-making.
4. Let Feedback Lead to Action
Gathering feedback is a great start, but it’s ultimately meaningless if it doesn’t lead to action. As a leader, it’s important to pay attention to the feedback you’re receiving. Are people generally unhappy with the company’s parental leave policy? Are they dismayed by healthcare coverage or a lack of mental health resources? Is there room to increase support for underrepresented talent (employee resource groups, mentoring programs, specialized training)?
Let the feedback you gather lead to change. This change might be small and easy to implement (changing up responsibilities within your team), or it may involve a major overhaul of company policies or operations. If the latter is true, it’s a good idea to work collaboratively with your people to create a compelling case that can be presented to company leadership.
5. Model Empathy
When it comes to adding empathy to the workplace, you have to walk the walk. Make a conscious effort to model empathy by acknowledging (and being respectful of) others’ perspectives, asking for input (and truly listening), and daring to be a little vulnerable (by acknowledging mistakes or sharing how you feel about something).
Keep in mind, empathy starts with YOU. Workplaces can become more mindful, welcoming, and inclusive if enough people are willing to adopt an empathetic mindset and take meaningful actions based on empathy. Today’s workers will not (and should not) settle for anything less.