Employee Engagement

Empathy in the Workplace: An Overlooked Route to Engagement

With employee engagement becoming a core business need, organizations are experimenting with different practices, tools and approaches. Among others, empathy in the workplace is coming out as a highly effective but often overlooked approach. Material incentives and rewards can generate transactional engagement. However, empathy in the workplace forms the base for emotional engagement which augments employee performance beyond tasks, aligning them to organizational goals. According to a recent study, 96% employees consider it important for their employers to demonstrate empathy. 

The struggle with empathy

Organizations today recognize the value of empathy in the workplace to drive engagement but struggle to reap benefits from the same. Several reasons contribute to this challenge. Firstly, most leaders and managers use a cookie cutter approach to team management and engagement. Whereas, empathy based engagement requires a personalized approach based on understanding employee needs and expectations. Secondly, empathy might also lead to unveiling of organizational and leadership weaknesses which are seldom welcome. Finally, tracking material incentives for engagement is easy, whereas the impact of empathy might be difficult to demonstrate in the first go. Thus, most leaders push it to the background. 

Creating empathy in workplace

Undoubtedly, there are several practices for organizations to create an empathetic and compassionate work environment to promote emotional engagement. Here are a few practices from the starter pack to create empathy in the workplace.

  • Give up the assumption game

To begin with, everyone needs to adopt a greenfield view of their coworkers, which requires giving up any assumptions you have. Unconscious bias and stereotypes are the biggest obstacles to creating empathy. Whatever the situation, it is best to ask the other person, instead of assuming. Asking not only adds clarity to the situation, but also leads the other person to believe that you are trying to understand their situation, and that’s what empathy is all about. 

  • Communicate- Listen- Ask- Understand

Empathy in the work requires a two-way communication. It goes beyond simply giving orders and tasks to the employees. It involves a dialogue where everyone in a conversation makes a genuine effort to listen to the others. The idea is to give others a chance to put their points forward, genuinely listen to them, interject and ask questions. This does not mean one needs to listen to and agree with whatever comes to the table, but points to the need to have healthy conversations, disagreements and debate. 

  • Accept and respect feelings

Next in line comes the need to accept that humans are an amalgam of both emotions and rationality. Expecting employees to leave their feelings at home and only bring their rational self to work is simply unrealistic. This means that leaders need to be sensitive about their actions and words when engaging with employees. Again, the idea is not to disregard disagreements. Rather, the objective is to promote constructive criticism within the bounds of respect, dignity and ethics to ensure anyone’s feelings are not hurt.

  • Value contribution, beyond incentives

Most organizations believe that hefty rewards and attractive bonuses are all it takes to boost engagement and create empathy. While they may act as hooks, they require other supporting measures too. Creating empathy in the workplace requires leaders and managers to value employee contribution at regular intervals. A simple path on the back can go a long way. Empathy is not just about appreciating results and performance, it is more about acknowledging the efforts, irrespective of the outcomes. Thus, organizations must initiate the practice of valuing contribution and efforts of every employee with words of appreciation and gratitude. 

  • Leverage digital tools

Finally, it is very important for individuals to have a high emotional quotient to develop and promote empathy in the workplace. While some might naturally have a high EQ, others need to develop it as a part of their development plan. Conventionally, organizations depended on workshops and sessions for the same. Off late, with the transition to remote work, many organizations are adopting digital tools to boost their EQ of their employees. In addition to offering virtual presence, they can be calibrated to personal requirements and pace of learning, thus, augmenting empathy at different levels. 

Developing empathy: Need of the hour

While the need for developing empathy in the workplace has been long standing, its urgency has increased manifold in the face of global uncertainty and ambiguity. With no clarity of what’s to come and everyone reacting to situations in their own ways, it is very important for leaders to don the cape of empathy. Unless everyone comes together and makes a genuine attempt to understand the situation of others, empathize with them, meaningful employee engagement will be a distant dream.

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