Does Empathy Have a Place in Your Workplace?
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The office has long been a competitive sporting ground, whether co-workers are elbowing one another out of the way for a break-room doughnut or a promotion. And it’s only gotten more competitive in the past decade: According to an OfficeTeam survey, nearly a third of managers surveyed said they felt their team members were more competitive with one other than they had been a mere 10 years ago.
Not surprisingly, two-thirds of employees surveyed believed their workplaces were competitive.
And that's not necessarily good. In fact, letting an office become too competitive is a big risk: 43 percent of employees told OfficeTeam that they’d leave their jobs if the competition surrounding them became too intense. And in a 2017 Harvard Business Review article, organizational behavior experts reported that when competition makes employees anxious -- leading them to worry about money, layoffs or even public humiliation -- they are more likely to engage in unethical behaviors to get ahead.
The problem is that highly competitive environments champion winning at the expense of teamwork, even though soft skills have a real impact on the bottom line.
Zeynep Ilgaz, co-founder and president of Confirm BioSciences, described in Entrepreneur a startup she previously worked at that prioritized sales over people: “Gratitude was the furthest thing from people’s minds," she wrote. "Employee recognition was seen as a waste of time. Believe it or not, even with such an emphasis on hitting goals and driving revenue, that company went out of business.”
While ego may feel essential to maintaining position -- for both leaders and employees -- it’s actually a hindrance. “Letting ego control your decisions leads to poor decision-making in business,” Erik Huberman, CEO of Hawke Media and another Entrepreneur contributor, wrote on his blog. Instead, empathetic leadership should be the goal.
More than the buzzword du jour
“Empathy” is more than a buzzword; it’s a critical tool for developing productivity, leadership and partnerships. People who exhibit less empathy pay the price -- literally. According to Frontline Learning founder Dan Rust, people who avoid human dynamics in the office earn 22 percent less than those who don’t. That means that those who are willing to shun others to get ahead are doing the exact opposite.
HBR’s 2016 Empathy Index evaluated global companies on their ability to retain high performers and create the kind of atmosphere that enables diverse teams to be successful. The companies the index described as the most empathetic-- Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Netflix and Unilever -- are indisputably leaders in their categories, signaling that empathetic individuals not only are more successful, but empathetic teams, as a whole, are, too.
But while empathy may offer a host of business and personal benefits, business leaders can’t simply order their people to “be empathetic.” Fortunately, there are three ways leaders can begin embedding empathetic outlooks within their companies:
1. Show gratitude to motivate employees. Gratitude goes both ways, as the old saying goes, and leaders who want to see their team members show gratitude to customers and one other have to extend it themselves. Ilgaz wrote: “All told, a team that expresses and experiences gratitude doesn’t just feel more motivated at work; it feels more appreciation for life.
"Sure, employees work harder and go above and beyond to innovate, but they also gain a greater sense of self-worth and self-efficacy.”
Expressions of gratitude don't have to be a time-consuming endeavor. An easy way to make this part of your routine is to set a weekly goal of noticing two employees doing something outstanding. Whether that's closing a big sale or tweaking a process in a small way you never would have considered, applaud the employee in the way he or she would appreciate most: a personal note, a shout-out in the company newsletter or a small token of appreciation.
2. Look for emotional intelligence to identify leaders. Smart entrepreneurs will look through the ranks to find the next leaders of their company, and the smartest will look for people who can develop the kind of environment that will help employees flourish. Identifying people who aren’t just strong performers but also team players will ensure that your employees will be led by someone who advocates empathy.
This action, in itself, sends a signal to the whole team. People who push others aside to reach the finish line don’t get the reward; people who help others to the finish line do.
3. Understand client needs to strengthen relationships. Remind employees that a willingness to walk a mile in someone’s shoes must include customers, as well. Ignoring a client’s internal changes, dismissing a customer’s complaint or applying a template to every interaction will only result in those people feeling as though they're being treated like carbon copies. And that's not going to do much for client retention.
“Remember that success doesn’t look the same for every person or every business. The key is to understand what is needed to ensure every partnership benefits all involved parties,” Huberman wrote. “Start by putting yourself in your partner’s position.” That doesn’t mean your employees will always conclude, “The customer is always right.” It simply means they’ll make sure that the situation is handled in a positive manner for everyone, even if the client doesn’t ultimately get what he or she asked for.
Competition at work can fuel innovation. But it can also create a mindset that views other people as stepping-stones or obstacles rather than human beings. By putting a damper on competition and championing an empathetic approach, leaders can see their teams grow -- along with their bottom line.