Hard to define and even harder to establish, learning cultures are seen as the pinnacle for those ‘new learning organisations’ sitting at the top of Towards Maturity’s Transformation Curve.
To me, there’s something that has gone under the radar among all the cultural chatter: the role of empathy.
Empathy is linked to a whole host of business benefits.
Increased employee retention, a more motivated and engaged workforce, and higher productivity have all been the results of workplaces where empathy is part of the culture.
The consequences of a workplace lacking empathy are so damaging that it’s something you simply can’t afford to ignore. 82% of employees would consider leaving their job to work for a more empathetic organisation, and by that we mean those that show they have their employees’ best interests at heart with well-being initiatives, flexible working arrangements and opportunities for individual voices to be heard.
In this uncertain era, where we have to work hard to earn the loyalty of younger millennial and Generation Z employees, empathy could be the key to winning them over.
Business leaders are becoming more aware of the need to cultivate creativity, empathy and problem solving, and to truly have an organisation-wide impact, it must be embedded into the organisational culture.
By doing this the organisation will be in a far stronger position to navigate our unpredictable, rapidly evolving business climate.
The empathy challenge
What surprises me in the latest research is that there’s still such a big gap between leaders’ and employees’ perceptions of empathy. In the latest State of Workplace Empathy report, 92% of CEOs surveyed said they considered their organisation to be empathetic, but only 72% of employees agreed.
And I’m even more alarmed that this gap is increasing; in 2017, the difference stood at 13% (76% of CEOs versus 63% of employees).
This tells us that senior leaders are overestimating how empathetic they and their organisations are, perhaps leading them to neglect it and causing the employer-employee empathy gap to widen.
Why is it so difficult to have an empathetic culture?
Defined as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling, empathy is not something that can simply be cooked up and spread around the workplace.
It certainly can’t just be introduced through a one-off programme or initiative.
In the relentless drive for results and efficiency, empathy can often get left behind as an afterthought.
And even when considered, it requires a deep understanding of your peoples’ feelings and behaviours, which is no easy task. Multigenerational workplaces mean countless different age groups and preferences to consider; empathy isn’t one-size-fits-all.
To put it simply, it takes time, dedication and patience to establish empathy within an organisational culture.
The role of leaders
It all starts with your leaders.
We know that senior leaders play a vital role in establishing shared values that become embedded into organisational cultures. And it’s no different with empathy.
If your leaders, managers and supervisors can show their understanding of employees’ needs, it will help strengthen their connection with them and set the tone for an empathetic culture.
This is all about trust.
Your leaders need to communicate in a relatable way that speaks to employees on their terms, to help create a shared sense of purpose in the long run that will drive commitment to the future direction of the business. Because this could change in unpredictable ways at short notice in our current VUCA climate, a reassuring voice that shows empathy towards the upheaval employees may be facing is so important in keeping them engaged and committed.
How L&D can help
So what does this mean for your organisation? What does empathy actually look like in the workplace? And how can we encourage our organisations to be more empathetic?
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
As a valued business partner, you can support your organisation’s efforts to be more empathetic by being the eyes and ears of your company, spending time with your people to listen to their feelings, and even observing everyday behaviours. Actively listening really is crucial, as 30% of employees feel that their opinions don’t matter.
You can use surveys and questionnaires to scaffold more informal chats, and follow up with incisive questions that get to the heart of employees’ feelings.
Make yourself available to answer concerns, in person as well as online, and respond as efficiently as you can.
Not only will this activity give you inside information about your people to feed into your benefits package, but it will also reassure employees that their voice is being heard, encouraging their buy-in to the company with a stronger sense of belonging.
With a shared sense of purpose, they will be more likely to look out for each other, encouraging empathy to spread organisation-wide.
You need to have policies and initiatives that demonstrate a business-wide commitment to your people.
For today’s multi-generational workforce, flexible working shows an understanding of employees’ very different needs.
Overly rigid working hours that don’t consider the individual needs of employees could make it look as if you don’t have their best interests at heart, leaving them feeling poorly looked after. What’s worse, this inflexibility will act as a barrier preventing empathy percolating deeper into your culture.
And it may sound obvious, but it goes without saying that having a range of well-being initiatives in place – from offering quiet mindfulness rooms at lunchtime to offering a comprehensive benefits package with financial and familial support – will show your company’s caring side.
Partner with key stakeholders around the business (likely to include HR and senior managers) to ensure your policies and initiatives are adequately supporting your people.
Your leaders can have all the charisma and personality in the world, but without the structure in place to support it behind the scenes, a culture founded on empathy could remain a distant dream.
Include it in formal learning
You can make empathy part of employee education and training, focusing on what empathy is and the behaviours that demonstrate it.
As I have already touched upon, leaders are critical when it comes to empathy. Including empathy in leadership and management development programmes could be a particularly effective way of encouraging its spread throughout your organisation.
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L&D is a supportive business unit that is there to look after the interests of its people.
Collectively, these ideas can help you to embed empathy into your culture, to encourage greater commitment and loyalty to the organisation over the longer-term.
In this age of uncertainty, what could be more important?
Stephanie Morgan FLPI, Director of Learning Solutions, Bray Leino Learning
Sharing ideas and observations to help improve performance.