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How Radical Empathy Can Improve Employee Performance and Morale

Really listening to someone’s personal story of belonging can help you understand them and forge a connection not often present in the office.

How Radical Empathy Can Improve Employee Performance and Morale
[Photo: Alex Holyoake/Unsplash]]

“I’m going to practice radical empathy now,” proclaimed Toshi, a 40-something male executive, to a small group at workshop offered by frog in partnership with Fast Company at SXSW this week.  “Hi, my name is Maddison and I’m a teenage girl,” he says. From there he describes an experience of belonging that Maddison (a young professional woman sitting across from him) had felt at summer camp.

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The most compelling part of his narrative was not that he was retelling the story from her perspective, but the fact that she was sitting facing him, their knees touching while she smiled and nodded. Once he was done, it was her turn to do the same for him as a way to introduce each other to the others in the group.

Maddison and Toshi had never met before this morning, but their connection even during those few minutes was undeniable. Ditto for the other two people in the group.

As Oonie Chase, frog’s executive creative director explained, the process centers around exchanging personal stories. The presence and attention required to tell someone else’s story– the so-called radical empathy–is a tool as much as a source of power. “In doing so you create a sense of belonging,” she said.

We already know that emotional intelligence is a highly prized trait for both leaders and staff. That skill allows colleagues to be heard and encouraged and often brings out people’s best work.

Belonging is a piece of that. And it’s important as a counteractive force to unconscious bias in the workplace, which can erode an employee’s performance, productivity, and morale. The shift away from that, said Linda Quarles, strategy director at frog, is a matter of appreciative inquiry, in other words, asking the right questions. In this workshop, the questions were simple: tell me about a moment (personal or professional) when you felt a sense of belonging; what did you value about yourself in the process; what is the core value of belonging; if you had three wishes to create a sense of belonging for everyone in the workplace what would they be?

Over the course of an hour, the attendees worked through these questions, told their personal stories, heard them retold, and then collectively discussed what themes and objectives emerged. Whiteboards held hand-drawn designs meant to illustrate what belonging meant to the group.

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In the end, participants were asked to write down their personal commitment to enable a sense of belonging for others in their personal and professional lives. New friendships were forged, contact information was exchanged, and commitments to be more present and listen with empathy were made.

As the “frogs” put it, such “provocative, strengths-based design research techniques can drive lasting individual and cultural change in an organization.” Imagine a meeting or new product pitch was met with such careful and present listening. In challenging and divisive times, this objective is more necessary than ever.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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