Have you really taken the time to assess whether or not empathy is present in your organization? Perhaps you are struggling to understand exactly what it means to be empathetic, or maybe you assume empathy is for the weak?
All the vagueness or misconceptions surrounding the importance of empathy should be clarified in order to truly see where your organization can benefit from it.
Putting empathy into action
I think it’s one thing to have empathy, to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to be aware and understand what another person is feeling and/or going through. However, if we don’t put our ability to demonstrate empathy into action, we aren’t using it to its full potential.
For example, as a manager, you can hear someone out and genuinely relate to what an employee is experiencing. But if you don’t subsequently take steps to create more open communication, support or even look at your own behavior and how you can develop in order to better the situation, you may be missing certain elements in building and managing healthy long-term relationships.
When you THINK you have empathy
It’s not always easy having genuine empathy. If you have to force yourself to approach a colleague in order to give him a pat on the back and offer some words of encouragement, is that having empathy?
Some may say this is demonstrating concern and letting the other person know that you are aware of what they are going through…but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are actually relating to this person’s experience, or seeing the world through their eyes.
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes people make when attempting to demonstrate empathy is basing their perceptions only on their OWN reference framework. It’s not always easy nor evident to step outside of your own mindsets and assumptions, and remind ourselves that the story we tell in our minds may differ from the story playing in the minds of others.
Again, having empathy isn’t based on whether or not you agree with how your colleague is reacting to a situation, but it’s recognizing and understanding that this type of reaction is possible.
Paying attention to verbal and nonverbal signs
Do you only show empathy when the need for it is right in front of you? Actually, let me rephrase the question. Have you ever overlooked someone’s need for empathy because you didn’t see the cues?
This can happen, even to people who exude empathetic tendencies to its fullest. Whatever context or preoccupations we find ourselves in, paying attention to the nonverbal signs of others can help us detect the need for empathy instead of waiting for it to find us.
This starts with the understanding that not all people will be overly demonstrative with how they feel, especially introverts, who are more likely to be discreet and be less demonstrative with their emotions. Then there’s posture, lack of eye contact, facial expressions and a sense of uneasiness that might convey an important message of needing support. This social awareness is an important factor of empathy and one that must not be overlooked.
Vulnerability plays a part in empathy
Not only does vulnerability help people on their journey to demonstrating empathy, but it is also what makes great managers.
People, especially those in upper-level positions, may gain a sense of safety in creating distances between them and their employees. Of course, a little distance is understandable, as they sometimes need to make unpopular decisions, direct, and confront non-performances.
But too much distance can make them seen inhuman or indifferent to what others are experiencing. They may even go as far as detaching or creating a protective shield against their OWN emotion. And, when we protect ourselves from feeling or displaying emotion, we can also make it a lot more difficult to feel the emotion of others.
Vulnerability is about letting those around you know that you too are subject to mistakes, regrets, and frustration. That criticism and rejection can also have an impact on your state of mind. That you too are human. This can also make you more relatable to your workers, leaving them feeling less defeated by their own shortcomings. In the end, this can help managers better connect and relate to his/her employees.
Empathy is good for business
One might assume that empathy only has an effect on the person receiving it, yet this is underestimating the power of empathy and its capacity to have a ripple effect throughout the organization.
Employers that are taking good care of their most valuable asset, their employees, can create a more motivated and driven workforce, who will reach business objectives and want to be part of a system that understands and acknowledges what they go through.
Forbes (2013) has stated that businesses with staying power “have mastered an intangible, often overlooked factor that allows them to focus on the future with clarity: empathy. While that may surprise many, I am certain that the ability to connect with and relate to others—empathy in its purest form—is the force that moves businesses forward..”
So how can one argue the benefits of being able to treat employees the way they want to be treated, understand their needs and reactions, as well as recognize how your own actions can have an impact on them? Empathy can bring about all these things and get you one step closer to business happiness.
Empathy, although sometimes overlooked, is an important factor not only for those giving or receiving it, but also for the organization as a whole.
It involves understanding, relating and connecting to others, without necessarily agreeing with how they react to certain situations. It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of others, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and understanding the verbal and nonverbal cues that may necessitate demonstrations of empathy. Though some may misinterpret empathy as a sign of weakness, I tend to see a whole lot of strength and humility attached to it.
How can you improve empathy within your organization?