by Shayne Thomas
15 Aug 2019
Business Leaders, Workplace Empathy Starts With You
3 valuable tips for building organizational empathy from the top down
Workplace empathy has become a major topic of conversation over the last few years. For many employees today, working in an environment that exudes empathy translates into a better overall quality of work life. And this has a trickle down effect into other parts of an employee’s general wellbeing, too. The truth is, when leaders chose to embrace an empathetic leadership style, they see results: their teams and employees are more motivated, more engaged, and more connected on the day-to-day. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
However, there are a number of leaders in the business world today who still haven’t quite grasped the power of empathy or truly understand how to put it into action. So, to set the tone, please take a moment to watch this very short and entertaining talk about empathy:
Sounds simple, right? The only hitch: talking about empathy oftentimes tends to be a lot easier than acting on it. And this is because, as Brené Brown so aptly puts it, “Empathy is a choice—and it’s a vulnerable choice.” As a leader, if your goal is to nurture organizational empathy, then you have to make empathy a conscious part of your day-to-day—even more so because your actions and behaviors will serve as a model for your entire organization to follow. By putting your best empathetic foot forward, you set the bar.
So, why is this important? For starters, it’s been found that 82% of employees would consider leaving their current job to work for a more empathetic organization. You can read this two ways. First, it’s a telling sign that many businesses today are falling short when it comes to workplace empathy and, second, that employees truly crave a more empathetic workplace. The solution here is pretty clear: businesses must make organizational empathy a priority.
Unfortunately, this comes at a time when 58% of CEOs say they struggle with exhibiting empathy consistently in the workplace. Another 72% say that the state of empathy in their workplace needs to evolve. These two stats should make us all rejoice. They not only tell us that business leaders are aware of their business’s empathetic shortcomings but also that they don’t quite know how to change it.
The good news is: we’ve got a few important bits of advice that can help you, as leaders, build, nurture, and grow organizational empathy from the top down.
1. Embrace diversity from the C-suite down
There is no question that diversity and inclusion can play a massively important role in shifting the tone and tenor of the workplace. More diverse environments have shown time and time again support a greater variety of perspectives, foster more collaborative teams, and boost overall productivity. For this reason, diversity cannot simply be a box that you check off; rather, it must be part of the fabric of your organization. And it definitely needs to be modeled from the top down. In fact, nine out of ten HR professionals and CEOs agree that companies are more empathetic when they have diversity in their leadership. Why? Because when employees see themselves mirrored in a business’s leaders, they are more likely to create a stronger connection with that business as a whole. This helps explain why 85% of employees have said that empathy is the direct result of leadership implementing strategies to increase diversity and inclusion.
Therefore, as a business leader looking to strengthen workplace empathy, truly embracing diversity—not only as a good business practice but more so as a way of creating a more equal and welcoming workplace environment—can and will go a long way.
2. Create a more personal connection at all levels of an organization
Take a moment to think back to that short talk on empathy that you just watched. The biggest takeaway should have been that empathy is active. It’s not something you can do in passing. Building organizational empathy means demonstrating it in your words and actions with everyone from senior leaders down to your most junior employees. It’s about treating everyone with the same level of respect and caring, which, in turn, will help you create more of a personal and meaningful connection with your team. So, it should come as no surprise that 78% of employees say that they would work longer hours—yes, you read that correctly!—for a more empathetic employer, someone who takes an interest in people’s lives (outside of work) and actively recognizes key milestones or achievements. And even outside of the manager-employee relationship, it’s been shown that employees who have a “best friend” at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs, too.
While the stats provided above may not necessarily be directly related, they do tell us one important thing: that people, more generally speaking, thrive when they’re able to make a more personal connection with those around them. The workplace is not an exception to this rule. To foster this at Cornerstone, for example, we regularly hold “Coffee with Cornerstars” events where our leadership team invites employees from all parts of the organization to chat with them about topics ranging from their professional goals to their favorite music. The goal here is to paint a “total person” picture of both our leaders and employees, giving everyone involved a unique opportunity to get to know fellow coworkers on a more personal level.
3. Advocate for employee well-being
Close your eyes for a second. Imagine a workplace full of smiling, happy people where everyone’s working hard, collaborating, and tackling their to-do lists with a skip in their step. (If you envisaged rainbows, unicorns, and other similar happiness leitmotifs, too, even better!) Now picture a workplace environment where employees are sequestered in their cubicles, isolated in front of their computers, just counting the hours, minutes, and seconds until the day is over—though, fully knowing that they’ll be right back at it the next day. There should be no question as to which workplace actively supports employee well-being.
Many of us have been raised believing in the truism that hard work pays off. And it does. However, hard work without any rewards can quickly lead to resentment and, even worse, burn out. Part of any effort to foster workplace empathy, therefore, comes down to being your team’s biggest stakeholder—and cheerleader—in helping them achieve a manageable work-life balance. (After all, your employees do have a life outside of work—or, at least, they should!) By doing this, you show that you not only care about your team but also respect the work they do to help your business succeed. The end result is, more often than not, a more productive, engaged, and loyal workforce for the long-term. In fact, a whopping 95% of employees say that family-oriented benefits like offering on-site daycare or flexible working hours create a more empathetic workplace. Benefits like these are seen as a direct way of you saying that you value the welfare of your employees above everything else. For this reason, we oftentimes see well-being-oriented benefits as more than just perks; they are ways to unite your leadership team, HR, and employees around a shared focus on well-being.
If you’ve been reading all the way to this point, you should be proud of yourself because you, as a business leader, are taking the first critical steps towards building and nurturing an organization built around workplace empathy. And when you do, you will see your business evolve in the most amazing ways. Empathy makes a difference—and you have the power to enact that change within your organization.
Lead by example. Show you care. Embrace diversity. These are all just starting points. If you’re ready to take it a step further, Cornerstone can help.