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­To Fortify Mission Outcomes, Lead With Empathy

While workforce development and retention are hot topics across all sectors, these issues are keenly felt within the federal government. Amidst rising retirement rates and increased resignations, the strategies embraced by federal agencies to fortify their workforce is under a microscope. And for good reason.

A recent survey of federal employees found that overall job satisfaction is trending downward. To counter this sentiment, federal agencies must place a continued focus on staff engagement and development to improve the employee experience.

As functional, mission, and IT leaders search for a new approach, empathy — and its many applications — should be top of mind. From leading and communicating with empathy to designing and coding with empathy, this mindshift has been regarded as a powerful response to workplace burnout. In fact, 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders have reported improved workplace engagement.

As we delve into the future of work, empathy has been become a prominent buzzword. But when push comes to shove, what do empathetic behaviors look like in real life — and how can federal leaders adopt them? Simply put, empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

Translating this into practical terms, federal leaders should apply these three principles of empathy to better respond and communicate with their teams, stakeholders, and customers.

1 Employ Active Listening Techniques

Whether conducting an all-hands meeting, checking in with a specific department, or holding a 1:1 meeting with an employee, federal leaders should employ active listening techniques and remain fully present and engaged. Active listening is the intentional practice of both hearing and observing verbal and non-verbal cues. During meetings, take strides to give your colleagues your undivided attention, setting aside devices, screens, and other distractions.

Whether receiving feedback on company policies, brainstorming upcoming strategies, or simply workshopping a problem, you must separate facts from feelings. It’s important to recognize that all feelings are valid even if you disagree with the sentiment. Within these discussions, federal leaders should ask colleagues for their permission to ask questions. Likewise, clarify takeaways and reconfirm that what you’re hearing is what’s being said.

2 Recognize and Manage Bias

Humans are social creatures, and we connect through shared experiences. As you build relationships, you may associate something you’ve gone through and bring the effects of that experience forward. While this often feels like making a personal connection, it can also introduce unintentional bias.

For example, a team member may come to you looking for guidance on how to handle a co-worker who makes the team member feel disrespected and dismissed. After actively listening, ask yourself: Would I feel the same if I was not a [white woman, Black man, person with a disability, etc.]? Would I hear the same thing if I was not [white man, Asian woman, remote worker, etc.]?

Likewise, monitor how you respond. Are you providing solutions or asking questions and probing the underlying drivers and context behind the behavior? Give yourself time to reflect and recognize what feelings these conversations raise and how they affect your listening and responses. Connection is critical— provided you’re mindful of potential biases and that you aren’t assigning values or expectations based on your own experiences.

3 Create Environments Where People Feel Both Seen and Heard

An empathy-first mindset can also help you advocate for an outcome-based orientation to your agency’s standards, goals, and performance expectations. Within your teams, give people room to execute in a way that aligns to their strengths, increases autonomy and improves the agency. Consider investing in staff ahead of their capabilities or hiring for potential versus demonstrated expertise. This embeds opportunities for upskilling, setting an expectation for team members to continuously learn new capabilities and grow as part of their job.

To be successful, this requires a different approach to performance management. For example, consider organizing quarterly or annual goals around progressive development milestones, such as the first step or series of steps versus a singular achievement. Likewise, put resources in place for staff development, and champion the use of individual development plans as your team members take on new responsibilities. This may include access to financial management support or training resources and should be tailored to the individual needs of the employee.

Whether you’re seeking to improve employee engagement and morale, gain buy-in for a change management effort, or promote the adoption of a new initiative, empathy-driven communications can help you engage with meaning and impact.

Mary Schwarz, Managing Partner, ICF Next Government, is a digital strategist and marketing technologist with a comprehensive range of experience in direct marketing, web development, community outreach, and analytics, Mary leads our Government, federal digital and engagement practices. She brings over 20 years of experience providing strategic guidance for health, education, and social programs.

Mary helps clients define their objectives and business goals; map user journeys; and develop incremental and iterative development plans. She also helps clients evaluate the impact and efficiency of their programs, and revise and optimize their digital programs for maximum impact.

Mary has extensive experience crafting data-driven digital and engagement programs using a combination of on- and off-line tactics and strategies. Her work often calls upon deep data analytics to not only inform and tailor experiences, but to drive timing, frequency, and lasting behavior change.

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