If there was one thing that the Covid pandemic taught all of us, it was quite simply this: there is no business worth its while that does not connect with humanity. And even as the corporate world fought this never-before war, ‘empathy’ quietly became the new synonym for professionalism, efficiency and impact. Like every new situation, it throws up some pertinent questions: how do you define the dimensions of ‘empathy’ at the workplace, why it is a priority and how does one encourage empathetic leadership?
Corporate or workplace ‘empathy’ is no more a buzzword but has become a cultural principle which corporate leaders have to invoke and implement, as an integral part of organisational culture during these pandemic times. Is ‘empathy’ a path forward for corporate leaders during these tumultuous pandemic times? When corporate organisations are built around the goals of capitalism, how can ‘empathy’ become central to the corporate strategy of companies and how does one cultivate ‘empathy’ while still maximising profits? Corporate Citizen brings you a spot poll wherein corporate leaders speak on these questions
Empathy-not a matter of choice or priority, it’s a necessity
“Demonstrating empathy and acting with compassion to make individuals and groups feel genuinely cared for will go a long way in helping employees and the business to recover”
- S K Dutt
Empathy is a new factor that corporate leaders are incorporating in these pandemic times-let us try to arrive at a common understanding of what empathy means both in general and also in the context of the workplace. For that, I subscribe to the view of Daniel Goleman, the author of the book Emotional Intelligence. He says that empathy is basically the ability to understand others’ emotions. He also, however, notes that at a deeper level, it is about defining, understanding and reacting to the concerns and needs that underlie others’ emotional responses and reactions.
This, to my mind, is relevant and applies equally well to both the pre and post-pandemic world and the workplace. A crisis of the magnitude of the pandemic can give rise to a wide range of physiological and psychological concerns that include increased emotional challenges and stress. It can create mass trauma and collective fears and existential threats besides economic concerns and fear of loss of jobs and livelihood. The loss of a sense of security can give way to feelings of anger, depression, shock, etc.
Is empathy a priority in the corporate culture today? Personally, I would say, it’s not a matter of choice or priority. It’s a necessity. It’s indispensable for businesses to exist, compete and grow. It’s a competitive advantage. Research shows that empathic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress and greater morale, and their employees bounce back more quickly from difficult moments. Still, many of us may struggle to make caring as part of our organisational culture. As Jamil Zaki says in the context of making empathy central to an organisational culture, ‘empathy often belongs to a quiet majority’. ‘The first step towards building empathy is acknowledging that it’s not an inherent trait but something that can be built’. And it can be learned.
Encouraging empathetic leadership
Empathy can be learned. Empathetic leadership means having the ability to understand the needs of others and being aware of their feelings and thoughts including what motivates them, their concerns, fears and apprehensions, and how to address or assuage them in the organisational context.
Why empathy matters:
- Leaders gain a greater awareness of the needs of their employees.
- Empathy allows leaders to create an environment of open communication and more effective feedback.
- It allows leaders to understand and explore problems employees face and how to help them to resolve the problems.
- Being empathetic with our employees helps to validate what they’re going through.
- Empathy allows us to feel safe with our failures because we won’t simply be blamed for them.
- It encourages leaders to understand the root cause behind performance gaps.
- Being empathetic allows leaders to help struggling employees improve and excel.
- Empathy allows leaders to build and develop relationships with those they lead.
Encouragement for empathetic leadership can be done by making leaders aware of the role of empathy in the context of organisational values, people management and business outcomes. It can be encouraged by making it a central pillar of leadership competency and organisational culture. And by linking reward and recognition and also making it an integral part of the performance management system.
Ways to show empathy
Create awareness about empathy and emphasise that in today’s world it’s indispensable for businesses to exist, compete and grow. It’s a competitive advantage. Cultivate, act and show compassion in all situations where it is required. Teach listening skills. Watch for signs of burnout in others. Show sincere interest in the aspirations, hopes, and dreams of employees and help them with their issues and problems. Learn to understand and appreciate the perspectives of employees. And most importantly-institutionalise.
In these circumstances, demonstrating highly visible and caring leadership becomes essential.
The inability to deal with stress and trauma can take a toll on individuals and pose unacceptable consequences for the organisation.
Demonstrating empathy and acting with compassion to make individuals and groups feel genuinely cared for will go a long way in helping employees and the business to recover.
- S K DUTT,
PG Alumnus, University of Oxford; Director, First Act Global Pvt Ltd; and Sr. Advisor, UN’s UNCTAD Empretec Program for India
Empathy-a connected, compassionate workplace
“Empathy allows everybody to feel safe with their failures. Being empathetic allows me to help struggling employees improve and excel. Employees thrive when they feel their voices and concerns are heard”
- Jitendra Tanna
To my mind, empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, be aware of their feelings and understand their needs. In other words, it means putting others ahead of myself and showing compassion to all.
Empathy is learnt on an individual level. It doesn’t come from an employee handbook, nor does it trickle down from management. Our effectiveness ultimately boils down to how well we listen and connect to our fellow employees. We take the personal responsibility to better understand our co-workers. The better we do our jobs, the more equipped our associates are to do theirs.
Being empathetic in the workplace provides meaningful, concrete returns. Developing and learning empathy can be draining, both emotionally and mentally. Getting caught up in the problems and struggles of your associates means investing yourself personally into their lives. Adopting a more compassionate tone company-wide isn’t simple. However, we focus and encourage our leadership team to take initiatives and learn more about the needs of employees. Follow an approach that can make everyone feel like a team and increase productivity, morale and loyalty.
Empathy allows everybody to feel safe with their failures. Being empathetic allows me to help struggling employees improve and excel. Employees thrive when they feel their voices and concerns are heard, hence, it’s important to focus on a couple of factors. Firstly, master the art of probing and understanding people’s feelings. Secondly, avoid making assumptions and rethink how you listen.
At Eternus, we were able to help/support a couple of our employees pre/post-Covid when they need us the most. Our co-workers went beyond their duties and supported these individuals which helped them stay motivated and positive during this very tough time in their lives.
Quite a few times, I have been told “Don’t be so sensitive.” I’m bothered by this sentence and it feels like my empathy is a real weakness. But it is a strength and I have witnessed it multiple times in my journey of three decades.
Empathy goes a long way in any organisation. It builds leadership, strengthens relationships, fosters work productivity and overall job satisfaction within the employee base. Empathy is a top priority for Eternus because we have realised that inclusiveness creates a huge impact in bringing more productivity and positivity within the system. The end result? A connected, compassionate workplace.
- JITENDRA TANNA, President & CEO, Eternus Solutions Pvt Ltd
Long-term success will stem from leadership that empathises
“Perhaps a better way to look at empathy is to include it in our measure of profit. Surely, there is much to gain by supporting our communities, employees, customers, vendors, and their extended families”
- Umeed Kothavala
The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been a tumultuous period for millions across the globe. As nations and systems failed everywhere-individuals, organisations, and businesses stepped up. With near unparalleled empathy, everyone who could reached out and supported those who needed financial, physical and emotional support. The motivation for much of this came from corporate leaders who saw the more compelling need to support our communities and societies in the face of these challenges.
They may appear to be a near-term contradiction in being empathetic and capitalistic but in fact, with a longer-term horizon, the two are closely intertwined. A holistic view of a corporate’s performance must not only include their social contributions and impact but also recognise that long-term success will stem from leadership that empathises with all its stakeholders and delivers their long-term sustainability and success.
Perhaps a better way to look at empathy is to include it in our measure of profit. Surely, there is much to gain by supporting our communities, employees, customers, vendors, and their extended families. Surely, it is time to replace the notion that profit can only be measured monetarily with more contemporary, comprehensive metrics.
- UMEED KOTHAVALA, CEO, Extentia Information Technology
Empathetic leadership for productive outcomes
“In my opinion, having an empathetic workplace creates a positive impact on business performance, motivates workers and increases productivity”
- Shradha Agarwal
“An empathy in leadership is indeed vital and is beneficial in many ways. It makes the working environment positive, making everyone feel as part of a team, which in turn boosts morale and loyalty. It builds a foundation of goodwill and creates a long-lasting emotional connection with employees”, said Shradha Agarwal, COO & Strategy Head, Grapes Digital, a digital agency, where interaction with brands happen via email, live chat, text, app or social engagement.
Empathy goes a long way in business, and it has been truer with the Covid-19 pandemic. The outbreak has made realise companies the need to treat and safeguard their employees’ well-being during difficult times. The outbreak has made companies realise the need to treat and safeguard their employees’ well-being during difficult times. Whether it was increasing medical leaves or restoring salaries to ensure work from home, organisations have been taking the extra step towards helping benefit their employees.
The two ways to show empathy towards employees are, listen attentively-not just their words but also their facial expressions and body language-without interrupting.
And while listening avoid judgements-make a genuine effort to understand the problems and try to provide a solution
Over the past year, discussions around mental health have driven companies to improve their work culture, so that employees spend more time with their families. “An empathetic leadership helps establish bonds which ultimately leads to productive outcomes. In my opinion, having an empathetic workplace creates a positive impact on business performance, motivates workers and increases productivity,” she said.
- SHRADHA AGARWAL,
COO and Strategy Head, Grapes Digital, and former Brand Manager - Head Digital Engagement, Bharti Airtel Ltd
Caring, Respect, Growth and Extraordinary performance remain at the core
“Our business while being heavily technology-driven relies substantially on the efforts and judgement of our teams. And we leave no stone unturned to take care of our people”
- Mandar Mhatre
Apex Group is one of the largest fund administration firms globally managing in excess of USD 1 trillion in assets across 45 locations with over 5000 employees. In India, we have over 1,200 staff across our offices in Pune and Bengaluru. Currently, our staff are all into WFH model who are spread across 225+ towns in India. Our firm is rooted in four core values. First: We care. Second: We are exceptional. Third: We promote growth. Fourth: We respect.
These values have stood the test of time and more so during the current Covid pandemic.
Our business while being heavily technology-driven relies substantially on the efforts and judgement of our teams. And we leave no stone unturned to take care of our people.
I personally encourage our staff to not only demonstrate our core values but also remain within the circle of goodness. The circle expects that we remain nice, display more empathy, kindness, tolerance and support towards each other. A few examples include: Greeting folks and asking about their well-being before starting any work-related discussions; welcoming family members especially small children while on call instead of treating these background noises as a nuisance; Sending a personalised note during Diwali to immediate family members and thanking them for their support towards staff; remaining open towards flexible work hours.
We also believe in showing tolerance towards one-off mistakes and ensuring we learn from them instead of making it a matter of performance. We have activated an employee helpline towards mental well-being and instituted a buddy system to ensure each one cares for the other. Furthermore, we encourage active listening and have a system of regular rewards and recognition for outstanding work and support to colleagues.
My job is made easier by the fact that this thought process is now institutionalised and has percolated right down to lower management levels. In conclusion, to paraphrase Jack Welsh, without a relentless focus on our people, we will merely be a furniture and computers company. Caring, Respect, Growth and Extraordinary performance remain at the core of our business and we remain very committed to this philosophy
- MANDAR MHATRE, CEO - India, Apex Fund Services LLP
Of being compassionate and unprejudiced
“Empathy and leadership go hand in hand. Rather, empathy is critical for leadership. It is a fundamental part of emotional intelligence and researchers have proved that it is critical to becoming an effective leader”
- Gauri Das
Research has shown that supporting and understanding your employees and team are the best tools that exude the emotion of care. And currently, this can be achieved by being empathetic towards your peers. As we are still dealing with the aftermath of Covid in these uncertain and difficult times, leaders are expected to look after the well-being of their staff. This is why showcasing empathy has become more important than ever. With the ever-increasing prevalence of mental health challenges, managers are being increasingly entrusted to support the staff even with their psychological needs. In short, the three S’s that occupy people’s minds are: Safety, Security (job security) and Skilling. Empathy has always been an integral part of any organisation. The pandemic exacerbated the importance of leading with empathy and leaders who do so have better net promoter scores, got better engagement rates and did better in effectively dealing with pandemic challenges.
Empathy and leadership go hand in hand. Rather, empathy is critical for leadership. It is a fundamental part of emotional intelligence and researchers have proved that it is critical to becoming an effective leader. Google’s Project Aristotle study also found that the most successful groups demonstrate empathy by having team members who are willing to discuss emotions utilising non-verbal cues. Also, in most effective groups each group member was allowed equal time to contribute.
As per me, the two important ways of showcasing empathy are. Empathetic listening, which means is with full intent. It indicates respect and concern. When you are observant while listening you can understand the non-verbal cues underlying the context. Listening develops trust and allows your employees to open up about what they are going through. Many a time, people are not looking for a solution but an outlet to vent out their emotions. Furthermore, checking out your biases and being non-judgemental exudes compassion and maturity. It is crucial to be watchful of unconscious basis since we lack awareness at times. These biases led to judgement but empathy requires us to be open-minded and analyse with curiosity.
- GAURI DAS,
Head HR and Admin, India Factoring and Finance Solutions Pvt Ltd and Global Speaker
Always lead with empathy
“A leader should provide time and space for the affected employee to regain his or her bearings and come back to their usual self. Empathy is an intrinsic component of the emotional intelligence of an individual”
- Nitin Sabharwal
The outbreak of Covid has been tough on all. This has affected all the industries and their employees. Sales, business, and growth took a fall. In such times, it is only the virtue of empathy that will come to the rescue of an organisation. It will guide them to bind the employees together and become a stable element in the wider corporate culture and growth. So, yes, empathy is increasingly becoming a priority for corporates.
As a soft skill, the ability to feel and gauge what others are going through will serve as a strong ingredient in a corporate leader’s employee management strategy. An empathetic corporate leader doesn’t only make for a less stressful workplace but also pushes motivation levels, raises morale and encourages comebacks. This will bring everyone in tandem and help in increasing the productivity of the company. In tough times, a leader, instead of picking on the employee, should demonstrate compassion. A leader should provide time and space for the affected employee to regain his or her bearings and come back to their usual self. Empathy is an intrinsic component of the emotional intelligence of an individual. Studies have shown how the emotional intelligence of individuals in an organisation can reflect on the emotional intelligence of the organisation itself. This can increase productivity and strength their loyalty to the organisation.
The first and most important way to show empathy is by lending a compassionate and empathetic ear to an employee’s issues without making assumptions. In fact, the corporate leader must not merely do empathetic listening but also make sure that he or she is perceived as such by the affected employee. Another important way is to prioritise steps that could address the affected employee’s concerns. And accordingly, the leader should set things in motion immediately and not wait thereby, demonstrating to the employee that his/her concerns figure as a top-most priority for the leader and the company.
In a world of social media where emotions can be vented out instantly and publicly if corporate leaders don’t respond to an employee’s genuine emotional concerns, the reputation and the brand equity of the company could also suffer.
- NITIN SABHARWAL, Chief Operating Officer, India Operations, Optimise Media
Empathy is a quality that is essential
The pandemic has taught us some very important lessons. The first thing it has taught us is that life is unpredictable and that even the best-laid plans can go awry. The second most important thing it has taught us is that empathy isn’t a quality that is desirable in corporate leaders, it is a quality that is essential. As a workforce, all of us wouldn’t have gotten out unscathed from this pandemic had we not demonstrated empathy towards one another. When employees are scared, employers must understand and comfort them and extend all possible support. Employees are the most priced asset of any company. If we cannot demonstrate empathy towards them, we have no right to be in business.
Absolutely, empathy is a priority in the corporate culture today. These are unprecedented times we are living in. Businesses realise that it is now more essential than ever to inculcate empathy into the organisation’s DNA. In fact, I believe that this change has come later than it should have but better late than never.
Empathy matters, because without it, organisations would be soulless. Empathy is what makes us human, and without it, no employee will feel a sense of belonging in an organisation. We must encourage empathetic leadership in managers from the get-go. Managers must be taught how to put themselves in the shoes of their subordinates. They should engage more with their subordinates and encourage them to share their concerns with them. Managers must be taught to be approachable at all times.
Ways to show empathy towards employees - leaders should have team-building exercises like team outings and team lunches to build better rapport. They should actively ask employees how they are doing, instead of waiting for employees to approach them. Most of all, leaders should cut employees some slack even if performance dips a little, especially when we are going through an epic crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
- ROHIT JOSHI, Sales Marketing Head, Sara Mechatronix
We need to practice empathy
“Leaders who are empathetic are always more successful than those who are not. Their teams are happier and work harder targets”
- Ankur Agarwal
Empathy at the workplace is no different from empathy in our personal lives. In fact, empathy is not even a problem as it’s a natural quality we are all born with. When our child falls and hurts himself, we run to pick him/her up. And we hold them until they stop crying. If we were not empathetic, we would not be able to do that.
The problem is the apathy that we learn in the name of “professionalism”. As managers, we care about productivity and output more than human beings. In the post-Covid world, when there is more stress and misery all around, we must unlearn this and go back to the basics. We need to practice empathy at the workplace as we do with our loved ones. Leaders who are empathetic are always more successful than those who are not. Their teams are happier and work harder and personalise their bosses’ targets. They take on new challenges, knowing that their leader has their back.
But here’s the thing: you cannot show empathy until you practice it. And when you practice it, it shows in everything you do. The creation of the in-house Covid Taskforce by companies to help their employees is one such example.
There is a war for talent going on. If you are an empathetic leader, you will lose fewer people. And you will attract many more. For businesses that have employees working from home, it becomes even more important. Why would an employee choose to work with you over anybody else who is willing to pay more? It’s very hard to leave a “best friend” for money. And that’s why empathy is a priority and a new factor for corporate leaders today.
- ANKUR AGARWAL, Founder and CEO, Clarion Technologies
Empathy an integral part of corporate leadership
“Employees who see and can feel empathy from their employers are likely to be more productive and certainly stay longer with the company”
- Meenakshi Rajpal Mehta
Definitely, post-pandemic empathy is not only important but also a key trait but unfortunately, it’s not understood well. We need to balance economic growth along with empathy very well. In fact, employees who see and can feel empathy from their employers are likely to be more productive and certainly stay longer with the company. In my opinion, not only employees, post-pandemic, employers but also can win their employees, customers, vendors, suppliers, forever, if this trait of empathy is shown in a meaningful and truthful way.