Empathy in the Work Place

How a Little Corporate Empathy Can Solve the Retention Problem

It seems we have a wee bit of a problem extending outside ourselves to apply empathy in the workplace. What may start as a small problem translates into big money for companies of all sizes that are failing in their efforts to engage their workforces.

Gallup says 53% of the American workforce remains unengaged in their work. They define this outlook as:

Generally satisfied but are not cognitively and emotionally 
connected to their work and workplace; they will usually show up to work and do the minimum required but will quickly leave their company for a slightly better offer.

Given that the current U.S. unemployment rate is at an all-time low, this disengagement poses a real threat to a company’s ability to retain the best workers. A lack of employee engagement could place an undue burden on human resource departments already struggling to staff up with a tighter labor pool.

HR Dive blames our disengagement on a lack of empathy in today’s workplace. They cite research from Businessolver showing that 85% of employees say empathy is critical to workforce culture and 98% of human resource pros say employee engagement heavily impacts worker retention.

What Is Empathy? 

In seeking a definition of empathy, let’s skip Merriam-Webster and go to a journal that uses science to teach humans how to be better and kinder. The Greater Good Magazine suggests that the idea of empathy stems from our ability “to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”

Scientists suggest there are actually two types of empathy:

  1. Affective empathy occurs when we feel an emotional sensation that mirrors what someone else is feeling. Workers that pick up on a stressful, tension-filled vibe in the office when they come in on a Monday exhibit affective empathy.

  2. Cognitive empathy is more detached. You can intellectually recognize that a person is having a feeling, but you’re not typically going to weep or laugh in response.

While both types are important, it is the second type of empathy that seems to be most appropriate — and more likely — for a CEO to exhibit.

If a lack of empathy is responsible for a disengaged office culture, whose fault is it? Who is responsible for employee engagement? Most fingers point to the CEO.

Empathy Comes from the Top

Employee Engagement starts at the top

“A good employee experience depends on leaders to push company culture forward, understanding that culture comes through in many ways and in every communication with the employees.”HR Dive

A CEO that lacks empathy may be focused so extensively on corporate profit that they enact workplace rules that hamper worker engagement. When employees feel overworked or underappreciated, it leads to problems with retention and productivity.

In a tight labor market, many believe that corporate culture is emerging as a strategic HR initiative that has a clear impact on the bottom line. In this environment, having a CEO, or anyone else in management, that lacks empathy will likely affect the company financially.

Make no mistake: The CEO is responsible for setting the tone for corporate culture. A good CEO can set policies at the top that trickle down to even the lowest worker in the hierarchy. But without the ability to imagine what it is like in that person’s shoes, it will be hard for a chief executive to create actionable policies or even a corporate vibe that will translate into happier employees.

The benefits of an empathic CEO include creating an environment where people want to try new, innovative ideas that could benefit the company. Creativity and teamwork are more likely to flourish in an environment where everyone is valued — and they know it.

Why Empathy Means So Much

Why empathy is so important at work

Empathy is a way for leadership to say, “I hear you and your voice means something to the organization.” There’s actually scientific and anecdotal evidence on the positive impact of empathy in the workplace.

On the science side:

  • One study showed that managers that exhibit empathy have less employee sick time and higher employee happiness scores

  • The Workplace Empathy Monitor reported that 77% of employees would work longer hours if their employer were more empathetic — it also reported 60% of employees would take a pay cut if their employer was just a little more empathetic

  • In perhaps the definitive guide to empathy and leadership, the Center for Creative Leadership surveyed 6,371 managers in 38 countries and found that empathy correlates to better job performance

Having business leadership actively practicing empathy means that employees will feel like their views are acknowledged and heard. This naturally makes people also feel like they’re appreciated, which will give a natural boost to engagement, according to The Washington Post.

HR Dive says, "people want to be treated as more than the product of their labor, or as a means to an end, the company’s bottom line." Also, people want to feel like their work has an impact on other human beings and companies have a hard time communicating that.

What's the Real Impact?

The real impact of empathy is that it makes employees feel as if they are actively working for the betterment of the company and that their efforts are worth more than just profit. Most people want to be more than a corporate lackey; empathy is one tool that we can apply to show people that they matter.

CEOs know how much empathy affects a company; 87% “see a direct link between workplace empathy and business performance, productivity, retention, and general business health.”

But how, exactly, can the corporate powers that be exhibit empathy and reap the benefits for their organization?

How Can Corporate Management Exhibit Empathy?

Listening to Your Employees

Flowery corporate speeches aren’t enough to appease stakeholders in a company. But when an annual “state of the enterprise” speech is coupled with a rise in profits, investor confidence rises.

Employees like a good rah-rah speech from the CEO as much as anyone, but they’ll go right back to disengagement unless concrete action reinforces the CEO's words. Corporate leadership or even the owner of a mom-and-pop small business can benefit from these suggestions for how to exhibit empathy toward employees:

  • Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
    Here’s the deal: If your employees are still making below the average salary or hourly wage for your region and job type and the employees feel like you don’t give a darn, you’re going to lose them. There’s a reason why Amazon just raised their minimum hourly wage to $15. While the public criticism of Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos had a lot to do with the move, it’s clear that the company is making an effort to reach out to the lowest-paid employees in the firm.

  • Create a Culture of Empathy
    The Center for Creative Leadership says that empathy can be a learned behavior. They say, “Leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training, or developmental opportunities and initiatives.” They suggest that managers should actively discuss ways to improve their empathy skills by giving attention to their employees. Simply taking interest in them as people while providing more constructive feedback can help.

  • Actively Listen to Employees
    In enterprise organizations, it’s harder for the C-suite to take the pulse of lower-level employees, but conducting, reading, and responding to employee surveys can certainly help. Mid-level managers can be taught to improve their listening skills by learning about non-verbal behaviors as well as learning active listening. It’s important to note that management is about managing people in addition to budgets and production. Job one for managers and CEOs, for that matter, is making sure complaints are responded to and suggestions heard.

  • Get to Know Your Employees
    The CBS television series “Undercover Boss” takes a high-level executive, puts them in a disguise, and sends them out to interact with lower echelon employees. It’s an interesting series where the CEO gets a chance to understand and empathize with real-life issues faced by their lowest-paid employees. The concept is revelatory for both the employer and employee, and the CEO always seems to regain empathy as part of the experience. The series illustrates an important idea: Sometimes empathy can only be gained by interacting with employees. It’s easy for a C-suite executive or even mid-level manager in a large organization to forget what it’s like to work on the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder.

  • Actually Interact with Your Staff
    To know your employees, you need to interact with them. How many managers just go into an office every day and shut the door? Interacting with workers is easier in a small business or when there is just one location where work is accomplished. For more dispersed or larger organizations, this gets more difficult. In these instances, video conferencing could be a good tool to help in the interaction between managers and employees in dispersed teams. Emailing or instant messaging can impart tone where there is none; sometimes seeing facial expression when interacting with team members can help.

Empathy requires an effort to get closer to employees in order to engage and understand their perspective. It’s clear that it’s worth the effort; 42% of consumers say they would refuse to buy from a company that they feel lacks empathy for their employees. One in three employees suggest they would leave their job for an employer that exhibits a little more compassion than what they’re currently experiencing.

We're On the Up and Up

The Rise of Workplace Empathy

Don’t stop believing — employee engagement is up…a little.

In August 2018, Gallup released an article with a technically accurate but seemingly overly optimistic headline: “Employee Engagement on the Rise in the U.S.” Turns out the measures of employee engagement rose by a whopping 6% from the prior year, while those workers who are “actively disengaged” dropped to 13%. While those numbers are better than they’ve ever been, it still leaves out a whole lot of American workers that report they aren’t feeling the love from their jobs.

But Gallup has been reporting on this lack of enthusiasm since 2000, and this is one of the sharpest improvements they’ve noted to date. In 2018, 68% of American CEOs said the level of empathy in the workplace must improve. Unfortunately, 45% of CEOs said they couldn’t figure out how to demonstrate empathy.

Forbes interviewed the CEO of Businessolver, who published the 2018 State of Workplace Empathy report. He pointed out the importance of new human resource strategies that embrace the idea of empathy as a recruitment and retention tool. He suggested:

CEOs are no longer free to sit on the sidelines and delegate workforce culture to their HR team or other staff. They need to be part of the change in conversation if they want to stay ahead of their competitors and equally important, engaged with all employees — both the senior executives and the interns.

It’s clear that a little corporate caring can go a long way to engage and retain employees. The benefits of making the effort to change this part of a corporate culture are clearly worth it both to the employer and their employees.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Creating a culture of empathy won’t happen overnight. There is no sprinting toward this goal.

The process of developing a workplace rich with empathy at all levels is a must. It’s only when the C-suite understands and actively values empathy as a leadership skill that the organization will truly be marching in the right direction toward higher employee engagement and retention.

Taking the time and energy to become more empathetic must be a goal for management at all levels of an organization. While empathy can be hard to benchmark and even harder to teach, it is a skill that, when practiced, gets easier over time.

Looking for Help?

Attract the best employees through empathy

If you’re an employee that feels undervalued, Artisan can help you find a new professional home where you truly matter. Contact us to get started down a new career path.

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