How to foster an empathetic and inclusive culture in your organization

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Here are steps organizations can take to increase empathy and avoid the pitfalls of the dark side of empathy in the workplace.

In business and in life, the impact of empathy is powerful. Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and identify with another person’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Empathy at work is positively related to job performance. Organizations that cultivate empathetic leadership are better able to drive innovation, envision new business strategies, adapt to change, and creating inclusive workplaces that better serve customers and employees.

3 ways to foster empathy at work

Empathy is the water in which inclusion swims. Empathy also promotes inclusion in the workplace by connecting colleagues on a human level. Like real water, empathy can collect in an empathic pool, resulting in a workplace filled with experiences of psychological safety and belonging. The empathic pool can also be deficient when excessive withdrawals are made due to the dark side causing harm and compromising employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and other indicators of organizational health. Here are steps organizations can take to increase empathy and avoid the pitfalls of the dark side of empathy in the workplace.

  1. Listen with empathy

Listening with empathy requires more than listening to understand. Listening to understand means paying attention to the nuances of speech. Listening with empathy requires translating the meaning and feeling felt in your relationship with another person into behavior that builds empathy capital.

Reading (listening) between the lines is a common saying that means to understand something that is not said openly. It can also mean deeply understanding another person’s spoken or unspoken experiences. At this moment of understanding, the superpower is activated and the ability to communicate across age, gender and race barriers is activated. Listening beyond words to the deepest thoughts, feelings, and experiences is key to activating empathy, building inclusion, and learning to listen across cultural divides using intuition and social sensitivity.

Imagine an example: a team member expresses a desire to take a step back from their current roles and responsibilities. An empathetic manager will focus on listening to the meaning and sentiment behind team members’ unique perspectives and experiences. This prepares the environment for a transparent and authentic conversation. Employees who have this kind of conversation describe their expertise as follows.

“My manager is amazing. I was able to have a real conversation with her.

“I was afraid to have a meeting with my boss, but I was pleasantly surprised at how kindly he listened to me.”

“My team leader understands me. It’s the first time I’ve had such a fantastic manager.”

Without saying “help me understand” and listening with empathy, the manager may not know that the person has a family emergency. By focusing on the person and engaging in compassionate dialogue, the manager can sense how their situation is affecting their personal and professional life. Empathetic listening will allow the manager to identify several options to support the team member individually and the team collectively.

Additional empathetic listening best practices include:

  • Hear the good and tune into the why.
  • Listen patiently. Don’t rush the other person.
  • Listen curiously. Challenge ideas, assertions and philosophies.
  • Listen to the truth with an open mind.
  • Listen, no matter how much you disagree.
  • Listen from the other person’s point of view.
  • Listen with interest and ask questions.

When leaders employ strong active listening skills, it creates an environment in which employees feel safer dealing with uncomfortable issues. Additionally, they will also be more likely to practice empathetic listening, creating a work environment rooted in respect and inclusion.

  1. Demonstrate authenticity

Being authentic means being sincere and transparent about who you are, how you think and what you believe. Authenticity builds the trust that is the foundation of an inclusive culture. When employees testify authentic leadership, they are motivated to bring their authentic selves to work. Collaboration, trust and effective communication result from authentic team behavior. What’s under the surface in these scenarios is empathy. Like a swimming pool, empathy is the water in which an authentic connection lives. Enabling authenticity expands the pool of empathy. Here’s how leaders can enable authenticity:

  • Express your authentic self at work and at home.
  • Tell your direct reports that you really appreciate them for who they are and their talents.
  • Create a safe space where employees can share their exact needs without fear of judgment or retaliation.
  • Welcome new ideas and encourage productive discussions with sincerity.
  • Demonstrate your vulnerability by acknowledging your mistakes to show your team that failure is a natural part of learning.
  • Share your likes and dislikes, hobbies and interests transparently and appropriately.
  • Be consistent – let your words, beliefs and thoughts match.

When leaders behave authentically, it creates an environment in which employees feel safer dealing with uncomfortable issues. As a result, employees will also be more likely to create a work environment rooted in empathy.

  1. Practice social sensitivity

Social sensitivity is the ability to identify, understand and respect the cues and contexts of others. This includes respecting views and social norms that have different experiences (eg religion, gender, class). These experiences are aspects of employees’ lives that are central to who they are. When the behavior of social sensitivity is present, the whole organization connects and relates in a cultural context of inclusion. Behaviors that demonstrate social sensitivity also swim in the pool of empathy. These behaviors tend to create a positive environment that activates new ideas, critically evaluates work, and shares responsibility.

Leaders can activate empathy and social sensitivity by:

  • Spend time with different people. Get to know their way of life, their beliefs and their vision of the world.
  • Be interested in how people talk to each other and how teams collaborate.
  • Pay attention to non-verbal cues such as body language, tone of voice, and other behaviors that indicate how someone is responding to you.
  • Take courses to learn to respect social identity and social norms.
  • To learn a new language.
  • Learn to ask the opinion of someone with whom you disagree on a specific issue.
  • Take inclusion-focused steps, such as inviting a new person to a meeting.

When leaders behave with social sensitivity and empathy, it creates an environment in which employees feel safer dealing with uncomfortable issues. As a result, employees will also be more likely to create a work environment rooted in empathy.

The dark side of empathy

Developing any new skill – including empathy – takes time and effort. While leaders need a safe space to practice being more empathetic, they also need to understand that empathy can be overused or used less effectively when not combined with other best practices. Encourage your leaders to avoid these pitfalls that come from compassion being used ineffectively:

Empathy as reinforced prejudice

Research suggests that people are more empathetic towards those who are like them and more prejudiced against those who are different from them. This can result in managers not leading with fairness, but unconsciously empathizing with direct reports similar to them by giving them better assignments, promotions, and bonuses.

When dealing with reinforcement bias, consider:

  • Take the perspective of someone different from you.
  • Put in place organizational structures that will hold you accountable for preferential treatment.
  • Search for information that will help you make an informed decision.

Empathy fatigue

Identifying with the suffering and problems of others can be exhausting and even traumatic. For example, an ER doctor or nurse treats victims of violence, car accidents, and other horrific injuries on a daily basis. Recent research suggests an overabundance of empathy – or misplaced heart – can ultimately lead to exhaustion and even apathy and prevent someone from helping the person in need.

When coping with empathy fatigue, consider:

  • Recognize exhaustion.
  • Self-care – sleep, hobbies, bonding with family and friends.
  • Receive empathy from others.

Empathy Episodes

Empathy can make us passionate, but it’s not sustainable when overused. This powerful energy of compassion can dissipate before meaningful action is taken. An example of this phenomenon can be seen through social media. When a photo of a young child refugee stranded on the shores of Europe first surfaced, it inspired millions of Facebook users to donate millions of dollars in one day. But in the days that followed, something else captured our attention, and empathy for the refugee crisis was forgotten.

Empathy that is not rooted in development as a leader can lead to poor self-regulation characterized by impulsive behavior – jerks wreak havoc on trust, resulting in the destruction of an inclusive organizational structure.

For episodic empathy, try:

  • Focus on one object of empathy at a time.
  • Think about why the object of empathy is important.
  • Consider how your empathy helps create an inclusive work environment.

Empathy is crucial to cultivating inclusive cultures that make employees feel valued and welcome. In addition to the moral imperative to practice empathetic leadership, research from the Center for Creative Leadership suggests empathy at work is positively related to job performance. By enabling empathy, leaders can create an inclusive work environment that increases performance metrics such as productivity, innovation, employee engagement, and customer satisfaction. To make empathy sustainable, leaders must engage and encourage consistent practice in small but meaningful ways.

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