Leading compassion by example.
Empathy, commonly described as walking in someone else’s shoes (even in the academic literature), is used to refer to someone who can deeply feel and understand an experience told to them as if the person experienced the same. Empathy is distinct from sympathy, which is a state of being sorrowful due to someone else’s misfortune.
We use the term in everyday conversation, attending to our friends by listening wholeheartedly to their latest experiences and responding to their stories positively by their relatability. We tell them that, we empathise with their experiences, the good and the bad—and share our own similar stories. Empathy brings our family and friends closer together, but what place does it have for jobs in Malta and elsewhere?
Because we often consider our colleagues separate from typical friendships, empathy is less discussed as we hold particular professional boundaries from one another. However, in doing so, we neglect our humane quality for connectedness and teamwork in the workplace. Recently, empathy has become a popularised topic of conversation for in-office and remote jobs. This is because, for jobs in Malta and across the globe, empathy has shown to have a positive impact on job satisfaction, workplace motivation, and productivity.
Placing Empathy in a Workplace Setting
It is critically important that managers and leaders alike guide employees toward positive workplace experiences, and supportively help them navigate the more challenging ones. Perhaps empathy has grown to become an even more essential quality as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic forcing many to rapidly shift their stable work routines. Communicating support and relatedness is an imperative skill for successful leadership.
Empathic leaders comprehensively understand employee needs and can effectively communicate how employees are feeling and thinking toward a situation. This is significant for employees to feel heard and listened to, especially if a circumstance turns dire. A once overlooked skill, empathy is becoming more valuable as it is transferable to support people from different cultures and various teams. Leaders must be more person-focused and able to connect with any employee, regardless of their background.
Research highlights one key point when studying empathy: leaders who can be empathic are not the same as those who demonstrate empathy. In a study conducted by Gentry et al. (2007), a leader who was empathic to employees:
- Can recognise and be sensitive toward employees who were overworked,
- Displays interest in the hopes and ambitions of others,
- Willing to support and help people during personal circumstances, and
- Is compassionate toward someone who recently experienced personal loss.
In their study, empathic leaders had a positive relationship with improved job performance. Employees preferred leaders who demonstrated empathy, and senior executives value empathy in managers as well. Those leaders considered highly empathic were also considered to perform better in their jobs. This positive outcome is indicative of other advantages that come with applying empathy in traditional office environments and remote jobs.
Is empathy reciprocal?
As leaders present one of the greatest influences on employees in the workplace, a large amount of research regarding empathy is dedicated to leadership theories. In an organisation however, several factors influence similar studied factors such as job performance and satisfaction, including co-worker relationships. With this in mind, empathy creates positive relationships when healthily displayed from both leaders and employees.
Empathic relationships in finance, IT, and other jobs improves overall morale, built on comfortable and open communication. Certain qualities demonstrating such a relationship includes:
- All parties are willing to communicate openly on numerous topics, including workplace concerns,
- Neither employer nor employee is interested in engaging in conflict or heated disagreement, rather criticism is openly welcomed and discussed,
- All parties instead engage in meaningful conversation whilst respecting the other’s point of view,
- Regular expressed appreciation for the other’s work and being,
- A want to meet in common ground when complex situations arise, leaving both employer and employee satisfied with final decisions.
The above illustrates a want to create meaningful relationships in the workplace built on mutual respect and appreciation, from engagement in general conversations to finding solutions for more complex situations. Good empathy arises from good communication, an invaluable skill for purposeful engagement in the workplace.
Practical Recommendations for Organisations
Empathy is not a static trait and can be learned overtime. In recognising the benefits of adopting empathy in office and remote jobs, these vital people skills can be applied in everyday life as well. Fortunately, there are numerous ways empathy can be adopted in organisations and these are further explained below.
Value empathy in daily discussions
Not everyone understands what empathy means or its value in a workplace setting. As an employee, you can raise empathy as an important topic of conversation to your manager and indicate its worth. This is particularly relevant for leaders who show a more transactional style, i.e., those who base their relationships with employees on reward and punishment. Although tangible outcomes are important to meet business needs, research is quickly demonstrating that spending time on employees and encouraging their capabilities is just as important, if not more important, in developing an effective workforce.
Relay to your colleagues and leaders that giving time to practice empathy fosters beneficial growth within the company itself, allowing employees to become more productive and positively perceived by managers.
Become an active listener
We usually know how to be present for our colleagues, hearing their concerns and voicing our own opinions in response. However, actively listening to our colleagues and employees stems beyond hearing them out—rather, as an active listener, we aim to fully comprehend what the other is feeling whilst withholding any judgement. We let our colleagues know that we are listening to their concerns and understand what they’re going through in their jobs.
When leaders become active listeners, they go a step further than providing a shoulder to employees and proactively seek options in addressing any concerns. Employees resonate with their actions, feeling respected by their leader and construct a relationship based on trust. Leaders attend to nonverbal cues that can also attest to the feelings of employees, including body language, intonation differences, and other facial cues.
Evolve your social identity to be more inclusive
There are many circumstances we can sympathise with and understand why someone would react to particular situations. It is a different story to live in someone else’s experiences, and this forms the basis that make up theories on empathy. It can be that, while you understand an employee is going through difficulties at work, as a leader this is not something you experience in your own role.
In this way, it is valuable to place yourself in their situation to fully comprehend what problems an employee is facing. In doing so, effective solutions can be proposed to solve complex problems and manage conflict. Practising empathy by immersing yourself in other’s experiences will help you grow as a leader whilst allowing room for innovation to support inclusive practices for jobs in Malta and beyond.
Practice a compassionate workplace culture
Everyone appreciates an individual who takes the time to listen to our needs and suggest valuable advice to address a means going forward. This is especially true in the workplace, as we surround ourselves with individuals and often work together to complete assignments. As a leader, you should employ managers who consistently expresses compassion towards employees and are people-driven in their approach. Teams that are led by compassionate managers and consultants alike will foster a workplace culture built on the foundations of empathy.
Employ diverse initiatives
It is no question that the world of work is moving remote, with organisations employing individuals who are not necessarily based in the country that resides the company HQ. The ability to be empathic crosses cultural boundaries, understanding cultural differences and concerns that does not necessarily affect another culture. Working across cultures means individuals express diverse concerns and perspectives, and empathy is a skill leaders should apply to employees working in-office or remotely.
All in all, empathy generates a workplace culture that supports inclusive and diverse initiatives by integrating different employee and leader experiences to cultivate respectful common ground for all. It is a skill that stems beyond the workplace and is one worth considering, carrying you forward in your everyday life.