At first glance, empathy may not strike you as an important soft skill to have. But as a manager, understanding the needs, thoughts and feelings of your team is crucial. When you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, the results can be a huge boost for your team’s morale, productivity, and loyalty.
But empathy doesn’t always come naturally to some leaders, and that’s OK. The good news is there are plenty of ways you can learn to be more empathetic as a manager.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at defining empathy in the workplace, how it can benefit organisations in the long run, and what you can do to improve your own empathy when leading a team.
What do we mean by empathy in the workplace?
When we talk about empathy, we’re talking about a person’s ability to understand the feelings and experiences of others. Those with empathy use their compassionate side to look at things from someone else’s perspective. In doing so, they can connect with others and form a greater understanding of the actions of colleagues.
And in a workplace context, empathy allows us to create stronger relationships and optimise performance in ways that benefit everyone.
Remember, empathy is different to sympathy. The two are similar, but sympathy tends to show pity for others’ problems without truly understanding them.
Why is empathy in the workplace important?
So, why is focusing our attention on colleagues and team members so important? Well for one, the benefits of empathy in the workplace are numerous. Let’s look at some of the biggest below:
It boosts productivity
When we see the value our work creates, we’re more likely to work harder and be more productive. Whether it’s meeting the customers someone might be serving in a restaurant or photos of patients presented to radiologists, numerous studies have shown that a greater connection with others helps to bring out the best in people, regardless of sector. By placing empathy at the centre of your team’s culture, expect productivity to receive a boost too.
It creates greater collaboration
Google’s Project Aristotle set about studying hundreds of its teams to uncover what truly makes them tick. They found that the most successful groups showed traits that could easily be deemed empathetic.
For instance, those who were adept at reading the nonverbal cues and emotions of others were more likely to discuss their concerns. Even if such conversations tend to be difficult, they can lead to greater teamwork and morale in the long run.
The study also showed that each person spent, for the most part, the same amount of time speaking during conversations. That means they also spent the same amount of time listening – a huge part of empathy. In striking a balance like this, the level of group understanding allows teams to more readily collaborate.
It creates a competitive advantage
A workplace with a culture of empathy is a more attractive one. If you can show you work for a company where staff are appreciated, then talented prospects will be more interested in joining you. And not only does this retain your most valued employees, but the knock-on effect of empathy also creates greater bottom-line results too.
A workplace that respects its staff and can set itself apart from competitors? What’s not to like?
It strengthens cultural diversity
Cultural diversity is one of the best things about the modern workplace. But empathy ensures organisations celebrating diversity aren’t just merely paying lip service. When a team can embrace each other’s differences, whether it’s their cultural background or simply the way they work, then positive relationships can thrive.
It builds stronger leadership
The improved communication, greater collaboration, and respect for others that empathy creates mean it’s an excellent skill for leaders to learn. Empathetic leaders become natural motivators and supporters of their team, acknowledging their needs and efforts when it matters the most.
How to be more empathetic at work
Practice active listening
When we truly open our ears to what others are saying, we can begin being more empathetic. Active listening, the act of properly paying attention to what others are saying, is an excellent way of understanding the needs of those on your team. By focusing on what’s being said, leaders can avoid misunderstandings, strengthen relationships, and overcome disagreements – all of which play a part in empathetic leadership.
Offer to help
Part of the difference between sympathy and empathy we mentioned earlier is that sympathy doesn’t tend to take action. Empathy, on the other hand, is more involved.
If a team member is struggling with their workload or going through some personal difficulties, then offering to help is a good way of showing empathy. It shows you’re invested in the team and dedicated to ensuring their success too.
Don’t assume the worst
We can’t all work at full capacity all the time. If one of your team is finding a particular task difficult, then you shouldn’t assume they’re not putting in the effort.
They may be having a bad day or dealing with something outside of work. When you make assumptions, you stand in the way of empathy. Instead, be patient, ask questions and see how the two of you can work through the issue together.
Be open with them too
Vulnerability and empathy go hand in hand. But you can’t expect your colleagues to open up if you’re a closed book yourself.
Share your own feelings and experience with them when you feel it’s appropriate. They’ll feel more comfortable talking to you about tougher issues when those in charge are willing to share them too.
Take care of them
Now more than ever, it’s easy to let workplace stress and pressure get on top of us. As their manager, it’s important to recognise when those on your team are close to burning out.
If burnout is left to worsen, you could be looking at an exodus of employees as a result. Make sure you’re aware of the warning signs so you can start to remedy their situation – even if it’s just spending a few minutes talking to them at the start of each week.
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