We’ve all heard stories of the “bad boss.” The ones who never listen and only want to hear themselves talk, or the ones who are so out of touch with reality that they don’t see the errors in their ways. Empathy in the workplace matters now more than ever.
Have you ever wondered whether empathy is an innate quality or a learned skill? Studies on the origins of empathy have revealed that the answer is not so apparent in some cases. In fact, people’s capacity for empathy can be based on their genetics and/or their environment. Because there are at least three types of empathy – cognitive, emotional and compassionate – you’ll want to consider what type of empathy you need to operationalize in your workplace and how to do it.
How to Operationalize Empathy
The year 2020 has taught us how important it is as leaders to show empathy towards those with whom we work. Cultivating resilience and promoting safe environments at work are also central to promoting healthy work surroundings.
“If leaders want to effectively understand their people — the heartbeat of their organizations — they must operationalize empathy,” says a GovLoops report, “How to Activate the Untapped Insights of Your Workforce.” The report reveals that 83% of federal employees, responding to the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, says their supervisor listens to what they have to say. I wonder what it would take to move that needle to 100%. Perhaps more empathic leadership.
Operationalizing empathy is putting empathy in actionable steps. The benefits of empathy in the workplace are numerous; however, many leaders grabble with how to effectively operationalize it in meaningful ways. In the article “How Do We Operationalize Empathy?” Geoff Bibby lays out four specific steps. Additionally, research on operationalizing empathy at work has affirmed its positive impact on workplace culture and relationships among employees and their customers. In health care settings, for example, operationalizing empathy has proven to improve patient health outcomes.
What About Hybrid Workplaces?
An EverFi article called “Building an Inclusive Hybrid Work Environment” suggests that leaders implement three inclusive actions with their remote work teams:
- Address the on- and off-site safety needs of their employees,
- Continue to communicate with remote employees on a regular basis and
- Plan virtual welcoming parties and events to ensure all employees feel visible and no one slides under the radar.
Operationalizing empathy deserves further study, specifically related to how it functions in the workplace. Now that you have a better understanding of what it means to operationalize empathy, here are four specific ways leaders can put empathy into action now.
The 4 Steps
1. Lead with heart. Leaders need to put their hearts, not their heads, into leading others. Empathy is about having and showing genuine care for others. Demonstrate compassion by putting yourself in another person’s shoes for a brief moment and responding accordingly.
2. Listen with your whole self. This means using your whole body to listen. Lean in, get closer, give direct eye contact and eliminate all distractions. Listen to understand, not to respond. Do this by asking questions. Active listening is a crucial communication skill and a simple way to embody empathic leadership.
3. Prioritize employee wellness. Above all, when making tough decisions, put other’s well-being first. Think about how the other person will be affected, positively or negatively.
4. Take action. Speaking about empathy without taking any forward motion is simply lip service. It does nothing for the people who choose to follow you, and it does even less for your organization entrusting you to serve its most important resource – its people.
Empathy is the key to great leadership! You need to put your empathy wheels into forward motion and act now. These small but mighty steps will make lasting changes to your leadership. Organizational culture thrives when leaders prioritize empathy. If you are still unsure about how to show empathy in your leadership, simply think about how you would want to be treated if you were in others’ shoes.
Kima Tozay is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and subject matter expert on Counseling and Advocacy programs in her role at Navy Fleet & Family Support Center, Everett, Washington. Her government career spans 15 years, starting in the Navy. Kima completed her Masters in Social Work degree from the University of Washington and has held positions with the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) and the Army. Kima’s greatest career accomplishment is receiving the Federal Employee of the Quarter Award for her leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic. She earned an Executive Leadership Certificate from Graduate School, USA. You can connect with Kima on LinkedIn.
Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected] And to read more from our summer/fall 2021 Cohort, here is a full list of every Featured Contributor during this cohort and a link to their stories.