Empathy at Workplace - A Cover Feature in Business Manager Magazine!

In times when work boundaries have changed significantly and a large section of employees are working from home, organizations can incorporate and practice empathy in myriad ways. It could be offering flexibility to employees so that they can effectively manage work and home responsibilities, access to mental health support, opportunities to volunteer in their communities and incentive to grow and develop their skills as the economy changes. Employee Assistance Programs and other benefits offering short-term counseling or referrals can be another good way to operationalize empathy.

Business Manager: Why element of empathy has gained importance in the workplace post covid phase and how it impacts the work culture?

Dr. Farah Naqvi – Pandemic triggered a range of physiological and psychological responses owing to increased uncertainty, social isolation and lost sense of normalcy escalating individual sensitivity and distress. A survey by Grover et al. (2020) under the aegis of the Indian Psychiatry Society found that 40.5% of the participants reported anxiety or depressive symptoms. About three-fourth (74.1%) reported a moderate stress level, and 71.7% reported poor well-being. In a crisis, connecting with people’s needs and responding to their insecurities becomes critical, making empathy an indispensable element. Pandemic set this realization for many business leaders that one of the best ways to look after their employees’ well-being in such times, is by infusing their culture with empathy and compassion. For instance, during the lockdown Dell Technologies’ marketing director Kelli Hodges responded to employee’s fears by holding open video calls at the end of each day. The meetings were not about work updates, but well-being check-ins a time to pause, share, listen to each other and share tips on navigating through the new normal.

Empathy has a strong positive impact on workplace culture. A study by Jane Dutton et al. (2014) from the University of Michigan found that empathetic workplaces foster a greater level of morale, particularly when employees are suffering a hardship. According to research by Business Solver (2017) a technology benefits company, empathy has a direct impact on employee productivity, loyalty, and engagement. Companies with empathetic work culture reap significant, meaningful returns. The research report showed that 77% of workers would be willing to work more hours for a more empathetic workplace; meanwhile, 60% would accept a slashed salary for the same. 92% of HR professionals note that a compassionate workplace is a significant factor for employee retention. 80% of millennials indicated that they would leave their current job if their office became less empathetic. An empathetic work culture not only serves to attract and keep the best talent but also positions an organisation positively post crisis by building resilience and good faith.

Business Manager: How empathy can be built up and brought to practice at the workplace?
 
Dr. Farah Naqvi: Empathy can be facilitated in organization through behaviors, norms, policies and benefits. Leaders can foster empathy in organization by not merely naming it as an important organization value or by conducting training programs around it but by modelling it in their behavior. Research on prosocial conformity by Erik et al. (2016) suggests that people imitate others prosocial behavior so generosity, altruism, and empathy can be contagious. Leaders can demonstrate empathy in small actions like practicing empathetic listening when interacting with employees, avoiding interruptions, or effective communication and follow-ups. Doing this, they will not only send a message that they genuinely care about their employees’ professional and personal development but set the tone for other managers. Initiating a mentoring program that encourages leaders, managers and employees to participate can also infuse the culture with a sense of fellowship, empathy, respect and esprit de corps. Soft skills often are given secondary importance in comparison to efficiency and professionalism. However, this has been of the key differentiating factors of companies that made to Fortune’s 2020 list of 100 best places to work. They give top priority to equity, inclusion, work-life balance, employee well-being alongside providing the right set of opportunities, pay and benefits. In times when work boundaries have changed significantly and a large section of employees are working from home, organizations can incorporate and practice empathy in myriad ways. It could be offering flexibility to employees so that they can effectively manage work and home responsibilities, access to mental health support, opportunities to volunteer in their communities and incentive to grow and develop their skills as the economy changes. Employee Assistance Programs and other benefits offering short-term counseling or referrals can be another good way to operationalize empathy.
 

Business Manager: What can be the barriers to empathy at work and how to overcome that?

Dr. Farah Naqvi: Research shows that when people perceive empathy as a ‘trait’ that they either have or not, it seems out of reach to them (Jamil Zaki, 2016). In a follow up study where evidence was presented that empathy is less like a trait and more like a skill, they responded by working harder at it. Hence the first barrier towards building empathy could be the belief that it’s a personality component that has less ambit of being developed. Overcoming this barrier shall require consistent efforts to identify, practice and reinforce empathetic behaviors like active listening, self-reflection and actions that foster a culture that is sensitive to its stakeholders’ needs. Training, mentoring sessions with timely feedback and opportunities for utilitarian communication must be encouraged. The second barrier to empathy is the digital distractions in our regular life. People are constantly bombarded with emails, texts, social media feeds, call and alerts that not only act as time stealers but leaves less time for quality human interaction. Empathy is the ability to see another person’s thoughts and feelings from their point of view, rather than from one’s own. Overcoming this barrier shall require individual effort to minimize unnecessary distractions, to create time for self-introspection and paying attention to the needs of others.

It has also been found that when companies promote highly competitive work environment and place secondary importance to teamwork, it creates an environment that stifles empathy. Leaders can generate excitement by highlighting the positive consequences of competition (rewards) or create anxiety by singling out low performers and sharing threats of being laid off or losing income. Research by Anna et al. (2017) revealed that when employees experience ‘anxious competition’, they are more likely to sabotage one another. Companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and LinkedIn found high in empathy index create an atmosphere that enables diverse teams to work amicably. One thing found common in these companies is their ability to create a workplace full of opportunities that balances the weights placed on the significance of company growth, individual productivity and emphasis on synergistic collaboration.

Business Manager: While keeping the presence of empathy in work culture, how organizations should deal with digital distraction, which may leave employee feel distant and distracted?
 
Dr. Farah Naqvi: We are currently confronted with an economy in which developers and advertisers are being rewarded to seize our attention. Employees are expected to be responsive at all times which is having a counterproductive effect on employee engagement and productivity. According to Gloria Mark who studies digital distractions at the University of California once a person is distracted, it not only takes an average of 23 minutes to refocus their attention back on the original task but also leads to increased stress and reduced performance. Dealing with the drawbacks of digital distraction may require open dialogue and confronting the issues in a constructive way.
 
Leaders should encourage offline work for at least for 2-4 hours to focus on critical task without interruptions. Psychologists use the term ‘online compulsive disorder’ to describe those who can’t help clicking on a new screen every few minutes. As per CBS Minnesota Report, two out of three people tune out of face-to-face meetings to communicate digitally with someone else. Planned strategies need to be implemented to deal with this increasingly common addiction to web based activity. Employees should be assured that emails and messages, unless highly urgent, do not need to be responded immediately. Organizations can also block applications that have little connection with work but a major source of distraction. Creating creatively designed spaces for employees to take a short break to disconnect and recharge themselves can also be helpful. Employees should be encouraged to make this a phone free break as the constant use of mobiles depletes their finite cognitive resources. They can spend this time in meditation, connecting with colleagues, reading, moving around or simply doing nothing. 
 
A study of 450 workers in Korea by Sudong et al (2016) found that individuals who took a short phone free work break felt more vigor and less emotional exhaustion than individuals who took their phones with them on breaks. Empowering and training employees on effective time management and organizing their daily routines effectively is equally crucial. They should be educated how influx of notifications messes up the brain’s dopamine response making them lostheir focus. Using simple tips like marking times on calendar when they don’t want to be interrupted and using an auto responder to let others know of what they are doing and when they will be back can be useful. Lastly, when investing in a digital workplace companies should utilize the knowledge of not only the IT experts but take feedback from the end users too. The technological interface should not be unduly complex to avoid wasting precious minutes.
 
Business Manager: How to evaluate empathy in the workplace?
 
Dr. Farah Naqvi: Measurements of individual empathy fall in two broad categories situational empathy and dispositional empathy. Situational empathy is measured by asking subjects about their experiences, studying their behavioral indices and physiological measures such as heart rate immediately after exposing them to a particular situation. Dispositional empathy is understood as a person’s stable character trait. It may be measured through self-report measures, client feedback, peer judgement and independent observer judgement. However, when it comes to corporate empathy, some see it as an intangible quality difficult to measure. Others see it as a collective capacity of an organization to demonstrate empathy to all its stakeholders -employees, customers, shareholders, suppliers, authorities and communities.
 
If individual empathy can be measured by studying the cognitive, affective and behavioral elements, there must be some way of examining corporate empathy. After all what makes some organizations more empathetic than others? Research on organizations perceived to be highly empathetic reveals that key features of an empathetic organization get reflected in multiple ways. Some of them being, how sincerely the organization practice diversity and inclusion? How satisfied are existing and past employees? Do they strive to nurture a responsive, self-management culture or a typical hierarchy with a top-down communication? Do they understand the connection between profit & purpose? When it comes to marketing, does it resort to manipulative advertising ignoring the value orientation and societal implications? Does it strive to work in an environmentally sustainable manner or is driven by cost cutting not bothering about the damage to environment? To measure corporate empathy, one has to study all such factors embedded in the corporate culture and values. This can be done by first taking into account all such factors that make an organization empathetic, and then evaluating the organization on those factors individually by way of assessments, qualitative study or feedback.
 
Business Manager: What can be the ill effects of empathy in the workplace?
 
Dr. Farah Naqvi: Empathy can be mentally and emotionally taxing affecting our judgment. People can experience empathic distress when they are able to empathize with the others situation but are not able to take any action to extend help because of personal or organizational constraints. Such distress can produce feelings of dissatisfaction, apathy and withdrawal. Secondly, empathy can be a source of organization politics if its extended to select in group members by the leader. As per research by Mina et al (2017) empathy is biased – we are more likely to empathize with those who are from similar social, racial and political circles. Rise of extreme empathy to ingroups or low empathy towards out groups can lead to intergroup conflict. Thirdly, showing empathy and truly feeling the pain of others by people in helping professions like doctors, caregivers, police officers can lead to burnout if they fail in regulating their own emotions. Inadequate training to perform such emotional labour and managing emotional workload can further worsen it. Fourthly, empathy can have its ill effects if inadequate attention is paid to who is the ‘empathy recipient’. Having standard norms is good but poor judjement by the leader before choosing to exercise empathy can lead to employees misusing organization norms or taking it lightly. Such misplaced empathy can also prevent a person from being empathetic and acting compassionately with the very people who actually need it. Lastly empathy can have grave consequences if people natural empathic tendencies are evoked and manipulated with wrong intentions for personal motives by those in management or by the trade unions. Just like politicians and activists sometimes deploy empathy to make a case of ‘us versus them’ and justify unjust acts.
 
Business Manager: How to balance empathy with meeting out business results without affecting mental well being of employees?
 
Dr. Farah Naqvi: Measuring business performance, tracking business metrics is paramount for achieving business goals. This requires managers to have key focus on performance indicators and employee execution. It is however important that managers balance accountability with empathy. The effects of workplace pressure on employee mental well-being are likely to be reduced if the organization succeeds in creating a culture of care and trust.
 
In a research by  Paul Zak (2017) compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high trust companies reported 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives and 40% less burnout. Leaders need to successfully create a balance between what is best for the organization with being kind and considerate to individual employees. Empathy can be a great way to connect with employees, but leaders need to balance it with assertiveness so that both employee satisfaction and productivity can be achieved. Leaders who can’t keep appropriate emotional distance and rely heavily on affective empathy are more susceptible to burnout. By relying more on cognitive empathy leaders cannot only create a comforting friendly environment but also excel in their executive skills. 
 
Research by Anthony Jack at Case Western Reserve University, describes two of the major neural networks functioning in our brains as the analytic network (ANand the empathic network (EN). The analytic network helps us make sense of things and events when we are solving problems and making decisions. The empathic network enables us to be open to new ideas and other people. Creating a strategic vision, hiring people with personality job fitestablishing performance metrics is critical for performance. However balancing empathy with meeting business results requires leaders to be mindful of their dominant neural network and successfully toggle back and forth as per the unique demands of the situation. Lastly many a times employees not only crave clear direction and tangible objectives but freedom to choose a work style that suits them and is conducive to work environment too. Placing faith and giving autonomy and flexibility to such employees not only leads to meeting business metrics but heightened employee well-being and organizational trust.

The article has been published in Cover Feature of Business Manager Magazine, 1 March 2021. Click on the link below to download the magazine coverage

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