Why There Can Be No Engagement Without Empathy

People often confuse the terms ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’. That’s understandable given both involve emotions, and, for many, emotion is an uncomfortable topic, especially in the workplace. Sympathy refers to one’s ability to feel sorrow for another’s misfortune, whereas empathy is the act of putting one’s self in another’s emotional space in order to understand what they are feeling. Empathy is incredibly powerful because it forges a connection between parties who otherwise might not see eye to eye, but rely on each other to accomplish a common objective. If that objective were, say, ensuring continued success and innovation for their organization, then that company’s leaders would have to somehow inspire their employees to reach that goal.

That’s where the concept of employee engagement comes in. Engaged employees perform better, generate more innovative ideas, and contribute to their organization’s overall success because they are inspired to do so. Where does this inspiration come from? Not from within, as so many leaders incorrectly believe, and certainly not if these leaders are reinforcing a culture that disengages employees. If leaders do not empathize with their employees and use that empathy to build an engaging culture, then they will have a workforce that merely goes through the motions.

The relationship between empathy and engagement becomes obvious when you explore the impact that the former has on the latter. Below are three ways that being empathetic toward your employees yields a much more engaged workforce.

Empathy turns “us” and “them” into “we”

There has always been an understood tension between leaders and their employees; generally accepted as the nature of the employment relationship. Labor vs. management. Worker bees vs. those at the top. Us vs. them.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Effective leaders know how difficult it is to execute organizational goals if there is a constant feeling of distrust between their managers and workers. The most forward-thinking leaders know that engagement is the key to fostering trust and inspiring their employees to perform. Unfortunately, the traditional “us vs. them” work dichotomy, by its nature, is not conducive to an engaging culture in which employees would want to bring their A game on a consistent basis.

But the power of empathy — putting yourself in your employees’ shoes and then flexing your leadership interactions, behaviors, and decisions — is its ability to bridge the gap between leaders and their employees. Empathy builds a teamwork mindset among colleagues who mutually respect and trust one another, and work together toward achieving goals.

Caring for your employees will inspire them to care for your customers

The idea of customer care being subordinate to employee care isn’t new. Sir Richard Branson’s guiding philosophy for Virgin Group has always been to put employees first. By caring for his employees, he inspires them to care for Virgin’s customers. It’s a leadership attitude that stems from practicing empathy.

When employees feel a genuine sense of caring from their leaders, they are far more likely to put forth the effort to create positive, memorable experiences for customers. Caring for employees means treating them how they would like to be treated. This runs contrary to the typical command-and-control style of leadership that most managers have been trained to believe is the only way to lead. They treat employees like children or criminals, instead of valued partners, and then expect them to provide amazing customer service. It simply doesn’t work that way. Humans don’t work that way.

As human beings, we choose to engage with one another based on a number of different variables, such as our background or our interests. We also engage emotionally. When your employees feel an emotional connection to the organization, a sense of being cared for, they will bring their best selves to the workplace and keep your customers happy.

Empathy cultivates loyalty

One of the common criticisms of the modern workplace is the lack of loyalty from employees. Frustrated leaders struggle to retain the best talent and shake their fists complaining: “There’s no loyalty anymore!” Actually, there is loyalty. But, like trust, loyalty needs to be earned. The best way to earn both is by empathizing with employees, rather than treating them as disposable ‘human capital’. Showing loyalty to employees through empathy leads to engagement and, as a result, cultivates loyalty from employees.

Loyalty does not necessarily equate to longevity. And that’s okay. Leaders should strive to foster loyal relationships with employees by establishing goodwill. Even if those same employees decide to leave the company and pursue other opportunities, they will have felt cared for and understood during their time there. Their loyalty then translates to recommending qualified candidates from their network for open positions, speaking positively about the organization to those within and outside their sphere, or even returning someday with all of the valuable knowledge they have gained in the interim. Loyal employees certainly do stay with organizations that treat them well, but even if they don’t stick around, they will carry with them the goodwill that only empathy can create.

For however long your employees stay with the organization, it is important that they know you empathize with them and care for them as individuals. While they are your employees, they will give you their very best if, and only if, your organization’s employee value proposition — what makes someone want to work for you — includes a culture in which its leaders are highly empathetic. After all, why would someone want to work for a boss (or an organization) who doesn’t care about them?

Bringing it all together

What separates mediocre leaders from engaging leaders is their ability to empathize with their employees. The same can be said for organizational cultures. A culture in which employees are engaged as partners in action is the result of leaders coming to terms with the fact that employees are human beings. Humans are emotional creatures who determine how much of an investment they want to make in a particular aspect of their lives based on how it makes them feel. If they feel valued, understood, and treated well, then they will go above and beyond for their employer and its customers. All it takes is a little empathy.

To learn more about the power of empathy in the workplace, check out the Empathy Business’ Empathy Index 2016 and see how the world’s largest organizations scored in building empathetic work cultures. https://hbr.org/2016/12/the-most-and-least-empathetic-companies-2016


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