Over the past few years, it has become apparent that nothing is normal any more.
Scores of people are still adjusting to new work and social demands; and as if that isn’t enough, everyone is still traumatised by events of the past 18-24 months.
When someone asks you, “how are you” and you say, “I’m fine,” is it because you’re really fine or is it because it’s what we’ve been taught to say? And when you ask how another person is doing, are we ever really ready for a response other than “I’m fine, thank you”? Yes, we’re here for work and no I’m not your buddy. But emotional intelligence ought to tell you that empathy will build stronger connections, better interpersonal relationships between colleagues and ultimately improve workplace productivity.
According to The Mindtools Content Team, empathy is the ability to recognise emotions in others and to understand other people’s perspectives of a situation. When most developed, empathy enables you to use that insight to improve someone else’s mood and to support them through challenging situations. Although empathy is often confused with sympathy, they are not the same thing. Sympathy is a feeling of concern for someone from one’s own perspective while empathy involves putting yourself in another person’s shoes and understanding things from their perspective.
The reason empathy is so necessary is that people are experiencing multiple kinds of stress, and data suggests it is affected by the pandemic – and the ways our lives and our work have been turned upside down. One might argue that lack of empathy is quite prevalent in today’s workplace. In fact. Afterall, when a list of strengths and values that a successful leader must have is made, very rarely is empathy on it. This may be because we perceive empathy as a weakness rather than a strength. However, maybe that’s where the mistake is being made because empathy should be on such a list.
Let’s look at mental health. In the US, a global study by Qualtrics found 42 percent of people have experienced a decline in mental health. Specifically, 67 percent of people are experiencing increases in stress while 57 percent have increased anxiety while 54 percent are emotionally exhausted. Fifty-three percent of people are sad, 50 percent are irritable, 28 percent are having trouble concentrating, 20 percent are taking longer to finish tasks, 15 percent are having trouble thinking and 12 percent are challenged to juggle their responsibilities. The study by Qualtrics also found that when leaders were perceived as more empathetic, people reported greater levels of mental health. But one might still wonder does empathy really contribute to positive outcomes?
According to Tracy Brower, sociologist and author of “The Secrets to Happiness at Work,” empathy plays a huge role in this in the following ways:
Innovation. When people reported their leaders were empathetic, 61 percent of employees said they were more able to be innovative, compared to only 13 percent of employees with less empathetic leaders.
Engagement. Seventy-six percent of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged, compared with only 32 percent who experienced less empathy.
Work-Life. When people felt their leaders were more empathetic, 86 percent reported they are able to navigate the demands of their work and life – successfully juggling their personal, family and work obligations. This is compared with 60 percent of those who perceived less empathy. Empathy is a very underestimated but extremely important quality for leaders to have. It comes naturally to some, and it is these individuals who will have a bit of an advantage. The good news is that empathy can also be learnt. So if you’re not naturally empathetic, you can learn it just as you learn any other skill in your work or personal life.
Leading with empathy doesn’t require you to be a mental health expert; it just needs you to demonstrate you care and are paying attention. It’s enough to check in, ask questions and take cues using your emotional intelligence on how much they want to share. That is basic empathy. However, great leaders will translate that understanding of someone’s situation and struggles and even offer to help. Appreciating an employee’s hardships and offering to ease their load can only harness healthy and positive work relationships that will help the organisation achieve greater success.
In summary, it’s imperative that leaders learn how to unlock value and drive the organisation forward by applying empathy. With this new workplace language, we need to capacitate ourselves and our teams with ability to design solutions, spark innovation, create impact and solve tough challenges with empathy at the centre.
*Nondwe Ngcongco is Public Relations Manager at Incepta Communications.