In today’s uncertain post-pandemic world, organizations are constantly seeking ways to gain a competitive edge, reduce turnover, increase attraction, and foster a culture employees desire to be a part of.
However, amidst organization’s pursuit of efficiency, productivity, and profitability, as well as RTO mandates, one crucial element often gets overlooked: Empathy.
Empathy is one of the most effective drivers of employee engagement, loyalty, and diversity in the workplace. It helps employees and teams feel appreciated, encourages them to collaborate and work together towards organizational goals and fosters a true sense of belonging and inclusion; that they and what they do MATTER.
Building a human-centric workplace, where empathy is valued and practiced, can have a profound impact on employee well-being, satisfaction, and ultimately, the bottom line. An human centric workplace drives success by recognizing the importance of empathy in fostering a positive work environment and enhancing organizational outcomes.
Here, we will explore the return on investment (ROI) of empathy in the workplace and discuss actionable steps that individuals, managers, and organizations can take to foster a culture of empathy.
To foster an organizational culture of empathy we must first understand what it actually IS.
Empathy is a complex trait that plays a critical role in social interactions and fostering strong interconnected relationships and social cohesion. It’s the ability to understand and share the feelings, emotions, and experiences of others.
Unlike sympathy, which involves acknowledging and offering support for someone’s emotions; empathy requires actively putting oneself in another person’s shoes, seeking to understand their perspective, and responding in a compassionate and supportive manner. It involves both cognitive and affective components, including perspective-taking, emotional understanding, and genuine concern for others.
Empathy is primarily a psychological and a behavioral phenomenon; however, it does have strong ties to human biology.
At a biological level, empathy is tethered to several interconnected neural networks and systems in the brain. Some of these include the mirror neuron system, the limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex; many of the same systems we discuss when we talk about neurodivergence.
Of these three biological systems, the mirror neuron system plays a fundamental role in empathy. The neurons in this system are activated when we observe someone performing an action or experiencing an emotion and allow us to respond in kind. For example, when you see someone crying; you may cry as well. Or when you see someone smiling or laughing; you tend to do the same in response. Another example is when we see a friend stub their toe or bang their elbow; your mirror neurons activate and stimulate the experience of pain and we wince as a result. We’ve all seen those social media videos where a baby is giggling uncontrollably; be honest, you couldn’t stop yourself from laughing along as well. That’s the mirror neuron system at is finest right there.
The limbic system is involved in processing emotions and generating empathic responses through structures in the brain such as the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex. These regions allow us to recognize and interpret emotional cues from others and allow us to connect with their experiences on an emotional level. As an example, let’s assume a co-worker is visibly distressed and crying. As you interact with them and observe their emotional state your amygdala becomes activated which plays a critical role in processing emotional stimuli such as facial expressions. This response leads to a heightened emotional state and increased concern for your co-worker; thus, fostering a more significant social connection.
As we know the prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher order cognitive processes such as perspective taking, emotional regulation and plays a crucial role in understanding and inferring the mental and emotional state of others.
Imagine you are chatting with your co-worker over coffee and they are expressing frustration over a challenging situation they may be facing. As you listen to their words and observe their non-verbal cues your prefrontal cortex becomes activated. Through this activation you mentally put yourself in your co-workers shoes and imagine their perspective, anticipate their feelings and understand the reasons behind their frustrations. This empathetic understanding allows you to respond appropriately.
From an evolutionary perspective, empathy has likely been advantageous for human survival. It promotes social bonding, cooperating and altruistic behaviors which are vital for maintaining social groups and fostering collaboration.
Empathy helps individuals understand and anticipate the needs of others, leading to more effective communication, teamwork and problem-solving within social structures and communities.
Organizational Empathy vs. Personal Empathy: What’s the difference?
How then does organizational empathy differ from personal empathy?
Organizational empathy refers to the ability of an organization and its leaders and managers to understand and respond to the emotions, needs, challenges and experiences of its employees as a whole, its stakeholders, customers, and clients as well as the wider community in which they operate.
A key difference between these two forms of empathy can be seen when we talk about culture and values. Personal empathy is driven by individual values, needs and beliefs while organizational empathy reflects the culture and values of the organization.
Another example of this is when we consider impact and influence. Personal empathy has a direct impact on individual employees, while organizational empathy influences the overall performance, productivity, and reputation of the organization. It can lead to increased employee satisfaction, engagement and retention, and improve customer loyalty and brand perception.
It is the age old “Me” vs. “We” differentiation.
Five Key ROI’s of Empathy:
An organization that actively cultivates and prioritizes empathy will have numerous benefits and advantages that permeate every facet of its operations and contribute to meeting organizational goals.
- Employee Satisfaction and Engagement: In a human-centric workplace, empathetic leaders and managers who demonstrate empathy are better equipped to understand and respond to the unique needs and concerns of their employees and can provide relevant support and guidance for personal and professional growth. By empathizing with their employees, they create a sense of trust, psychological safety, and emotional connection. This leads to increased employee morale, job satisfaction, and a sense of belonging, which in turn enhances productivity, creativity, and innovation.
- Effective Communication and Collaboration: Empathy plays a crucial role in fostering effective communication and collaboration within a human-centric workplace. When leaders and employees practice empathy, they actively listen, understand differing perspectives, and respond with understanding and respect. This empathic communication creates a foundation for open dialogue, encourages the sharing of ideas, and enhances collaboration among team members. Improved communication and collaboration result in more efficient problem-solving, better decision-making, and ultimately drive the success of the organization.
It’s no surprise employees today want to feel that they belong; that the work they do for an organization matters. They want to feel seen, respected and enabled and tied to something that makes a difference; practicing empathy inside your organization can make this possible.
- Customer Experience and Satisfaction: This focus on empathy not only improves internal dynamics but also extends to the organization’s relationships with customers and clients. In a human-centric workplace, empathetic employees are better equipped to understand customer’s needs, anticipate their expectations, and provide exceptional service. By putting themselves in the customers’ shoes, they can provide personalized, authentic service, leading to enhanced customer experience and satisfaction. Satisfied customers are more likely to become repeat customers and advocates for the organization, contributing to its success.
- Conflict Resolution and Relationship Building: Conflict is inevitable in any workplace, but empathy plays a vital role in resolving conflicts and building positive relationships. In a human-centric workplace, empathy enables individuals to understand the perspectives and emotions of others involved in a conflict. It promotes effective communication, active listening, and the ability to find mutually beneficial solutions. By fostering empathy, organizations can minimize destructive conflicts, promote healthy relationships, and create a harmonious work environment employees WANT to return to.
- Leadership and Emotional Intelligence: Empathy is a key component of emotional intelligence, which is highly valued in effective leaders. Leaders who demonstrate empathy understand the emotions and experiences of their employees, enabling them to provide support, encouragement, and guidance. Empathetic leaders inspire trust, loyalty, and commitment, and they are more likely to motivate and empower their teams to achieve their full potential. Strong leadership founded on empathy is closely tied to the success of a human-centric workplace.
A human centric workplace that prioritizes empathy becomes an attractive place to work. It promotes employee satisfaction and engagement, fosters effective communication and collaboration, enhances the customer experience, facilitates conflict resolution and relationship building and strengthens leadership and emotional intelligence. With empathy as a core value, an organization’s reputation as an empathetic employer enhances its employer brand and helps in recruiting and retaining high-preforming employees.
Steps to Foster an Empathetic Culture:
Actively becoming a more empathetic human centric organization requires a commitment at all levels.
- Establish Clear Values and Expectations: Define empathy as a core value of the organization and communicate it effectively to all employees. Develop a set of guiding principles that promote empathy, respect, and understanding. Make it clear that empathy is an expected behavior and an integral part of the organizational culture.
- Provide Empathy Training and Development: Offer empathy training programs for leaders, managers and employees at all levels. These programs can focus on developing active listening skills, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and effective communication. Ensure that managers and leaders also receive specialized training on empathetic leadership, as they play a crucial role in setting the tone and example for the organization.
- Lead by Example: Leaders and managers must embody empathy in their daily interactions. Model empathetic behaviors such as active listening, understanding, and supportive communication. Demonstrate empathy by recognizing and acknowledging the efforts and challenges faced by employees. By leading with empathy, leaders inspire others to do the same and show employees an organizational commitment to fostering an empathic culture.
- Foster Open Communication: Create channels and platforms for open and transparent communication within the organization. Encourage employees to share their thoughts, concerns, and ideas without fear of judgment or retaliation. Actively listen to employee feedback and take appropriate action to address their needs. Regularly solicit input and involve employees in decision-making processes.
- Build Trust and Psychological Safety: Establish an environment where employees feel safe and comfortable expressing their opinions and concerns. Foster a culture that values diverse perspectives and encourages healthy debate. Recognize and appreciate the contributions of employees and provide constructive feedback to help them grow. Trust is essential for empathy to flourish.
- Encourage Collaboration and Teamwork: Promote collaboration and teamwork by creating opportunities for employees to work together on projects, problem-solving, and innovation. Emphasize the value of collective intelligence and the strength of diverse perspectives. Encourage employees to support and assist their colleagues, fostering a collaborative and empathetic work culture.
- Recognize and Celebrate Empathy: Develop recognition programs that highlight and reward empathetic behaviors. Celebrate employees who demonstrate empathy in their interactions with colleagues, customers, and the community. Share success stories and testimonials to inspire others to engage in empathetic actions.
- Incorporate Empathy in Performance Evaluation: Include empathy as a competency or performance metric in employee evaluations. Assess employees’ ability to demonstrate empathy in their interactions, teamwork, and communication. Recognize and reward individuals who consistently exhibit empathetic behaviors and provide opportunities for growth and development in this area.
- Support Work-Life Balance: Recognize the importance of work-life balance and provide resources and support systems to help employees manage their personal and professional lives. Offer flexible work arrangements, employee assistance programs, and wellness initiatives. Encouraging work-life balance demonstrates empathy and care for employees’ overall well-being.
- Continuously Evaluate and Improve: Regularly assess the organization’s progress in fostering an empathetic culture. Conduct employee surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one feedback sessions to gauge the effectiveness of empathy initiatives. Use the feedback to make necessary adjustments and improvements, ensuring that empathy remains a priority.
Building a human-centric workplace that values empathy is not just the right thing to do; it’s a smart business strategy and critical to the success of the organization. Empathy is one of the most effective drivers of employee engagement, loyalty and diversity in the workplace. It helps employees and teams feel appreciated, allows them to collaborate and work together towards organizational goals.
A human centric workplace fosters positive relationships, effective communication, teamwork, and employee well-being. By nurturing empathy within the organizational culture, business can create a more inclusive, harmonious, and productive work environment.
Learn more about our Author: Kelly Colón‘s multi-disciplinary background gives her a holistic view of strategy development – particularly focused on blending the physical, psychological and behavioral elements of the workplace when supporting new ways of working, changes in work practices and ongoing operational support. At Allsteel, Kelly provides science and insight-informed guidance to a wide range of client projects in sectors including life science, financial, technology, higher education and government; an contributes to Allsteel’s strategic planning process. Kelly joined the Allsteel Workplace Advisory team in 2022, bringing unique and diverse skillsets and experiences from her 32 years in real estate, facilities and operations fields. Her last 10 years have been focused on developing operational strategies, facilities management and construction as well as teaching facilities and operational courses in several Boston-based colleges and universities. Kelly is an active member of CoreNet Global, the international Facilities Management Association and Workplace Evolutionaries, and most recently supported Women in Bio’s mentoring community. Kelly received MS in Facilities Management from Massachusetts Maritime Academy, a BS in Facilities Planning & Management from Wentworth Institute of Technology and an AS in Interior Design from Hesser College. She also competed post-graduate coursework in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at North Central University. Outside of work, Kelly’s passions include spending time with her husband and children, anything outdoors – other than camping – baking, reading and writing.
*Disclaimer: This post was not generated by A.I. It is indeed written by a real life human. A pretty cool human in fact.