Four ways leaders can be more empathetic in the workplace

Empathy is an ability to see the perspective of others and allows one to understand and anticipate actions and needs. Michelle Gallaher explains why empathy is a critical business skill and how leaders can develop greater emotional literacy. 

Understanding people is a key skill in the workplace. It enables leaders to resolve conflict, tap into an individual’s motivated abilities, build more productive teams, negotiate more efficiently and invest in relationships with co-workers, clients and customers. Empathy is critical to effective management and leadership.

However, many leaders lack this critical cognitive skill and consequently create organisational cultures that alienate, reinforce behaviours or expectations that pressure their team members to push themselves to limits that cause them nothing but extreme stress and burnout leading to instability, increased business and personal risk and an absence of trust and respect.

According to a study from Gallup, nearly two-thirds of full-time workers are dealing with unresolved burnout at some point. Not only does this result in lower productivity and damaging workplace culture, but also workers who seek employment opportunities elsewhere.

In order for organisations to survive and thrive after COVID-19, it’s important to acknowledge that this has been a deeply uncomfortable year for many and that our teams will return to work with anxieties and behaviours that may need to be considered, accommodated and managed. Empathy is about putting ourselves ‘in their shoes’. It is about anticipating how people may react or respond and incorporating this into decision making and action.

For the leaders who don’t know where to start, here are my four suggestions for developing empathy skills and sharing the behaviours in the workplace.

Offer more one-on-one meetings

Honestly, it’s the best way to understand how each team member is feeling – especially in today’s uncertain climate.

We all know that everyone’s work-life balance situations are different, and without one-on-one meetings it can be difficult to understand what an employee is feeling, and how that may be impacting on performance or team dynamics.

While some meetings may need to be more formal, if it is a regular ‘check-in’, consider opting for a coffee or walking chat instead. It will make your team members feel much more relaxed and comfortable to discuss any pressing issues or problems they may be facing in the workplace or at home. This approach allows for ‘open space’ where anything can be raised in the dialogue.

Listen to learn and understand. During these meetings, it’s important to show that you are actively listening by becoming the master of asking questions, without interrupting. When you ask thoughtful questions of your employees, you’re basically saying, “Okay, I hear you.”

Questions asked of your employees should be specific rather than a blanket, one-size-fits-all response. We all deserve to have our concerns and opinions heard and understood. Make sure it is authentic, uninterrupted, respectful and held in trust.

Don’t micromanage – communicate with clarity

We all hate it, so why do we continue to do it? Not only does micromanagement cause more stress on workers, but it also demonstrates that you care less about their wellbeing than the task at hand. Micromanaging deeply undermines psychological safety and trust in the workplace.

Give your team members more trust and the space to complete what they were hired to do. Make the boundaries clear and communicate levels of responsibility and deadlines in writing. Creating psychological safety via clarity instead of control is central to helping employees feel empowered.

And if you don’t entirely trust that they can complete the task at hand, then give them the tools, timing, training or mentorship to do so. Letting employees sometimes struggle and occasionally fail is an important learning opportunity. When a task is being attempted for the first time try promoting a ‘have a go’ attitude instead of a ‘get it right first time’ response.

When we work in a culture where there is psychological safety and clarity, employees are far more likely to be more creative, more innovative, more committed and more collaborative.

Prioritise employee wellness

Work burnout is a real problem today and comes at greater risk during times of intense organisational change and growth. Whether that’s a hard deadline that causes your employees to work exorbitant additional hours or taking on one too many difficult tasks, burnout can be contagious and damaging on a far wider scale within a workplace if not addressed early.

Managers who are skilled at empathetic leadership are able to recognise signs of overwork in others before burnout becomes an issue that results in disengagement, accidents or turnover. When the leadership team becomes role-models for positive, preventative behaviours, and a public narrative that recognises burnout and rewards people for raising their hand when they feel at risk, every employee (and client) benefits.

Another way to solve this problem is to ensure your team takes more micro-wellness breaks across their workdays. An employee access program is such an important asset to a business. At Opyl we use Connect Psych, a new telehealth platform that uses artificial intelligence to match employees with an appropriate psychologist that specialises in specific issues. Consultations are online and completely private. Whether the platform is used by every employee or not is not the point – having it there and promoted regularly is the important wellness prioritisation message.

Celebrate achievements and milestones

Finally, I always celebrate my team’s achievements, no matter how big or small they may be.

Recognising not just the wins but the struggles, learnings and near-misses is also important in demonstrating and practising empathy for your colleagues.

Whether they’ve just finished a big project or won that new client pitch, it’s important that our team members feel appreciated for their hard work.

Friday cheese-boards and wines, going out for a team building exercise such as an escape room or a round of bowling, or simply sharing a home-made cake for a birthday are all easy ways to show your team you care about them and trying to build a safe, healthy and happy space for everyone to work within.

Michelle Gallaher is the CEO of health data analytics company Opyl.

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash.