Want to be a good employer? Be empathetic

Managers who support the learning and growth required for people to succeed can inspire their team members to bring their best selves to work

Updated: Jun 30, 2021 07:22:28 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

The ongoing health and economic crisis has caused unparalleled disruption across the business landscape. And amid a crumbling economy and mandated isolation, working professionals often find themselves at the brink of a burnout, with little reason to stay motivated. According to LinkedIn’s 2020 year-end data, 87 percent of India’s professionals chose to spend more time working than taking the December holiday break, which consequently led to 3 in 5 professionals feeling increasingly stressed. Ever since, this constant feeling of doom continues to envelop the workforce even today.

What the pandemic has taught us is that we cannot succeed alone, and the emotional well-being and mental health of our employees, colleagues, teams, and agency partners is the employers' responsibility. The overall employee experience is also a significant metric of success for a company today. LinkedIn’s Future of Talent 2021 report found 85 percent companies in India take cues by holding more employee engagement activities, to keep employees inspired and connected with their teams despite working in isolation.

But what really underscores employee experience and well-being? Empathy or compassionate leadership is the foundation of a healthy, collaborative, trustworthy, and transparent work culture. Several companies have made this their organisation’s tenet, focusing on people-centric leadership as the way forward. Managers who support the learning and growth required for people to succeed can inspire their team members to bring their best selves to work. They help companies deliver richer cultures, higher engagement, more creativity, and better business results. A Glint’s State of the Manager 2021 report states that employees who find their manager(s) inspirational are twice more likely to feel optimistic about their own happiness at work.

Very simply put, empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes and understand their emotions and needs. At a deeper level, it also means “connecting with people so we know we’re not alone when we’re in struggle”, as defined by author and researcher Brené Brown. Empathy helps build and strengthen peer relationships, fosters work productivity, and has proven to increase overall job satisfaction.

So how do you build teams and entire workplaces with people and talent at the centre, and how do you lead with empathy to inspire them to stay productive, happy, and healthy? Empathy is one of the most important skills a professional or leader can learn today, and its benefits can go a long way in their careers, especially in times of uncertainty.

Here’s how leaders and managers can keep themselves in check and practice empathy at work:

  • Are you listening enough? Actively listening to your employees, co-workers requires effort. However, it doesn’t stop there. While listening, it is also imperative to ask appropriate and open-ended questions to stay curious and to get to the root of your employees' or co-worker’s problems and emotions. When you ask thoughtful questions, you are implying that “Okay, I hear you. What can I do to help? How are we going to take care of this?” Staying curious, identifying emotions, and summarising next steps at the end of the conversation can make the employee feel empowered to change their situation.
  • Empathy vs sympathy—know the difference: Sympathy is generally defined by feelings of pity for another person, without really understanding what it’s like to be in their situation. Empathy, on the other hand, refers to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person. Understanding this difference is key to creating a culture of open, stigma-free conversations, which is the need of the hour. Sharing from your own experiences (of similar problems or struggles) can be a great way to showcase the empathy you feel and can help strengthen communication between employers and employees.
  • Normalise vulnerability at work: The goal of creating an honest, authentic, and vulnerable work culture is to build a community to turn to in times of need. When you allow for vulnerability, you tell your employees that it is okay to bring their emotions to work. Creating a sense of belonging is a very important piece in building such strong people-focused organisations.In fact, LinkedIn data found that practicing inclusion and belonging helped India’s female workforce participation to increase from 30 percent in April to 37 percent in July 2020. Justin Black, Head of People Science at LinkedIn says, “It’s hard for people to do their best work when leaders don’t actively prioritise happiness, inclusion, and belonging. This is why it’s so important for organisations to double down on employee engagement and belonging as they navigate a global pandemic and cultural movement. Humanity needs compassion and belonging as much as ever. That means listening to people, empathising with them, and taking action to improve the outcome.”
  • Giving people the time and space to recuperate, heal: As India was impacted by a gruelling second wave of Covid-19, people across cities and states experienced trauma, fatigue, sickness, anxiety, and financial stresses. In such times, as problems mount, it is important to remember that the mental health of all professionals has been gravely impacted.It is also hard to gauge what someone is going through—emotionally or practically. In such times, as a leader or manager, giving employees the time to heal, recharge is essential. Reassuring them that it is okay to take time off is imperative at such times.
  • Practicing patience shows empathy: Stress come in all shapes and sizes, and often it is masked to look like anger, frustration, and impatience. Before you jump the gun and call HR for someone’s “unprofessional” behaviour, try to take a step back and talk to your employee without judgment. What you will learn through an honest conversation is that perhaps he/she is anxious due to a financial crunch, marital issues, or a lack of privacy at home. Practicing patience is key to demonstrating empathy at the workplace.

Empathy, today, is the key to unlock deeper, more meaningful professional growth and a shared company vision. It is also about redefining success, reimagining the way we work, and unlearning a few bad habits of the professional world that are stifling and limiting. Just like we learn to hold space for our friends and families, we are now willingly offering to hold space for our colleagues and employees to support them in the face of extreme adversity and loss.

The writer is a Career Expert and Communications Lead at LinkedIn India

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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