Insights with Dzigbordi K. Dosoo: Why empathy matters in the workplace

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Positive conflicts in the workplace
Dzigbordi K. Dosoo is a Personal Impact, Professional Growth and Influence Expert

There are two main competencies needed for the effectiveness of workplace; technical skills and human skills, also referred to as hard and soft skills. Technical skills have been overshadowing human skills for quite some time and although most businesses, companies and organizations have now come to know and understand the usefulness of human skills, there still remains some who are yet to include them as needful for their outfit.

These companies, businesses and organizations may think empathy is simply not worth the effort. What they fail to realize however is that, when relationships at the workplace suffer, so does their business, company or organization’s success.

Empathy is one of the human skills that has received little attention although it is one skill everyone, especially leaders should have and establish in the workplace. Understanding other people’s emotions in the workplace is key, as having empathy can enable you to build and improve your relationship with your peers, those you supervise, your leader, and clients. It can also help in the building of more productive teams, conflict resolution, and the best part is, just like any other skill, it can be learned.

According to influential psychologist Daniel Goleman, empathy is one of the five key components of emotional intelligence – a vital leadership skill. It develops through three stages: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassionate empathy.

Cognitive Empathy – the ability to understand what another person might be thinking or feeling. It need not involve any emotional engagement by the observer. Managers may find cognitive empathy useful in understanding how their team members are feeling, and therefore what style of leadership would get the best from them today. Similarly, sales executives can use it to gauge the mood of a customer, helping them to choose the most effective tone for a conversation. Cognitive empathy is a mostly rational, intellectual, and emotionally neutral ability. This means that some people use it for negative purposes. For example, those with a Machiavellian personality trait may use cognitive empathy to manipulate people who are emotionally vulnerable.

Emotional Empathy – the ability to share the feelings of another person, and so to understand that person on a deeper level. It is sometimes called “affective empathy” because it affects or changes you. It is not just a matter of knowing how someone feels, but of creating genuine rapport with them. For some of us, this kind of empathy can be overwhelming. People with strong empathic tendencies can become immersed in other people’s problems or pain, sometimes damaging their own emotional well-being.

This is particularly true if they do not feel able to resolve the situation. You can avoid this kind of emotional generosity burnout by taking breaks, checking your boundaries, and strengthening your ability to cope in such a demanding role. Anyone leading a team will benefit from developing at least some emotional empathy. It helps to build trust between managers and team members, and to develop honesty and openness. But empathy is most valuable when it’s combined with action.

Compassionate Empathy – the most active form of empathy. It involves not only having concern for another person, and sharing their emotional pain, but also taking practical steps to reduce it. For example, imagine that one of your team members is upset and angry because he or she delivered an important presentation badly. Acknowledging their hurt is valuable, and affirming their reaction by showing signs of those feelings yourself even more so. But best of all is putting aside some time for them, and offering practical support or guidance on getting through the situation and preparing for next time – mindtools.

One place where you can find a vast array of backgrounds, cultural understandings, religious beliefs, values, and perspectives is the workplace. To be able to understand and be able to work amicably with your teams, you need empathy. The ability to understand others’ experiences is very vital for businesses, companies and organizations committed to delivering high quality services and products that meet clients’ needs and advance their quality of life.

Officevibe explains that enforcing empathy in the workplace increases psychological safety. Part of what builds psychological safety is both trust and feeling understood. When employees feel safe, they are more comfortable taking risks, making mistakes, and being vulnerable with their team.

This in turn leads to more creative, innovative, and inclusive work. Developing empathy as a manager will not be something you do overnight. Rather, by remaining consistent and always asking yourself what you can do to better help support and understand your employees, your efforts will permeate throughout the team to create a culture of empathy. Building your empathy will take your leadership skills to the next level.

Empathy can be learned as mentioned earlier, although it can take time to improve. I teach all my clients empathy because of its importance in their personal and work life. I encourage them to teach it to, and practise it with their teams as this will help them understand their concerns from their point of view. It also help employees to know their co-workers better and thus improve workplace relationships.

Here are 4 ways to help in the empathy journey as a leader:

  1. SHARPEN YOUR ACTIVE LISTENING SKILLS 

Active listening is a structured way of listening where you give the person in front of you your undivided attention while mirroring and validating what they say. When you notice someone on your team acting out of the norm, you must ask them questions to better understand what they are going through beyond work.

As leaders you must learn to increase focus during your one-on-ones by turning off all your notifications, putting your phone away, and zoning in on your employee. Actively listen to your employee by mirroring back what you have heard. Respond to their concerns with phrases like “I understand what you are saying” or “that must be challenging for you”.  Avoid arguing or putting up defenses with your employees when they state a complaint or frustration in the workplace.

Simply be there to hear them out, ask probing questions to better understand, and leave room for them to speak.  This is especially important now as employees are living in unique situations and sentiments in their personal lives. It is important for leaders to be able to think beyond performance and recognize people’s struggles beyond the screen. Another great way to really listen to your employees is by seeking out feedback to really understand their pains – Officevibe.

  1. CONSIDER OTHER PEOPLE’S PERSPECTIVES

You are likely familiar with the saying, “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes.” Examine your own attitude, and keep an open mind. Placing too much emphasis on your own assumptions and beliefs does not leave much space for empathy! Once you “see” why others believe what they believe, you can acknowledge it. This does not mean you have to agree with it, but this is not the time for a debate.

Instead, be sure to show respect and to keep listening. When in doubt, invite the person to describe their position some more, and ask how they think they might resolve the issue. Asking the right questions is probably the simplest and most direct way to understand the other person – mindtools.

  1. BECOME A BETTER LEADER, WORKER AND FRIEND 

“If you don’t share someone’s pain, you can never understand them.” ―Nagato

Empathy helps you to understand your coworkers, family and friends better since you are able to put yourself in their shoes and are able to feel what they feel. You are in a better position to effectively lead and inspire others, as well as develop more caring and compassionate relationships. People who are skilled at understanding others’ feelings and situations are able to become effective leaders.

I always teach my high performance coachees in their sessions that empathy is a valuable attribute that enhances overall cooperation, respect and understanding in the workplace as well as their personal lives. By cultivating empathy, we are better equipped to make connections across cultures. Empathy builds leadership. Empathetic leaders motivate teams to do their best work by listening, acknowledging others’ needs and contributions.

  1. YOU WILL HAVE A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE 

Technology is continuing to change the way we do business and interact with each other. Organizations are automating processes and using new tech-based tools. But not all innovation is created equal. Products fail when they do not meet the needs of people. Involving users in each step of the design process (human-centered design) helps ensure new products are useful in real-world settings.

And while the influence of technology is growing, our need for human connection is unchanging. So when the people representing your organization show humanity and kindness, now more than ever, it stands out – civcom.

“When you show deep empathy towards others, their defensive energy goes down and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you get more creativity…” – Stephen Covey. Empathy is a game – changer for any organization, company or business that seeks to have tangible impact in the lives of the people they cater to. It is also one of the most needed attributes of effective leadership that every leader must work on for a more healthy, happy and productive workplace.

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