There was once a time when hearing a child’s voice on a conference call—even if in the background—could have mortified nearly every participant. There once was a time when even the mention of mental health in the workplace was seen as taboo. Still today, in some organizations, acknowledging stress and burnout can impact a career.
By now, I hope most of us accept childcare challenges (or any homelife challenges, for that matter) and frank discussions of well-being in the workplace with grace and compassion.
Empathy continues to be the leadership watchword of the pandemic. Its rise to importance represents an important cultural shift in a country where half of workers do not use all of their vacation time and reams of research show that individuals became less empathetic as they became more powerful.
As a father and CEO of a company that has made leading with empathy a core value, I think it’s important to make sure this shift toward empathy is more than a temporary concession to extreme circumstances. Empathy is a prime factor in organizational resilience amid the pandemic. It can also help insulate companies from major shocks that will undoubtedly arise in the future.
Make no mistake, those shocks will occur. The effects of the pandemic may recede in the future, but major weather events, supply chain crises, and the risk of workplace violence can disrupt the lives of customers and employees, as well as the overall health of businesses in unimaginable ways. And many of us are still reeling from the personal shocks of the past two years, including the illness or loss of loved ones. We have old friends who we haven’t seen in years perhaps, and holidays that have been canceled or skipped.
To lead with empathy is to seek to understand the perspectives of others. We can’t ignore the personal impacts of the pandemic on ourselves, our colleagues, and our customers.
COMMUNICATION LAYS THE GROUNDWORK
Empathy is about more than being nice. Fundamentally, it requires us to place ourselves in the shoes of other people and see with their eyes.
You cannot do that if you’ve never listened to them, if your communication strategy is one way, or if you make assumptions based solely on your perspective. And you can’t start listening on the day of a crisis. Nevertheless, we regularly see this playing out at companies. According to our most recent survey of security, legal, and compliance professionals, 86% agree their company downplays risk to emulate a safe environment, as opposed to taking the steps to monitor and proactively prevent workplace violence incidents.
Think of a relatively predictable crisis, like a snowstorm in the Northeast or a hurricane in the Southeast. Most companies have contingency plans to respond to these situations. The question is whether those plans are informed by empathy. Do you know what percentage of your employees would have to call out because school is canceled due to snow?
A major snowstorm in the Northeast, or another failure of Texas’ power grid, has broad and largely predictable impacts for all. But listening to employees and customers can help build stronger contingency plans that meet the needs of consumers.
Empathy is a fundamentally human characteristic: it fosters belonging and is returned in kind.
The trust that empathy builds has quantifiable benefits to an organization and leads to happier, more engaged employees. Employees in high-trust organizations report 74% less stress, more than twice the energy, 40% less burnout, and 13% fewer sick days, noted the neuroscientist and economist Paul J. Zak.
Beyond the quantifiable benefits of building trust, I’ve learned in my life that when you seek to understand other people, they return the favor. Empathy goes both ways. Seek to understand—you might not get it right all the time, but you certainly won’t get empathy right if you don’t make an effort.
I’d be willing to bet that organizations and leaders that fostered this sense of belonging have adapted to the pandemic with less conflict and turbulence. But beyond the benefits empathy brings to business, it’s worth pointing out that there are very real consequences for people as well. Simply put, empathy builds stronger, more cohesive teams that people want to be part of. Empathy edifies, allowing employees to bring their whole selves to work. That’s a clear boost in the well-being of others, and a goal we’d all be happy to achieve.
Lukas Quanstrom is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ontic Technologies, the first protective intelligence software company.