The Secret of the Balanced Workplace

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Listen closely—your business might depend on it.

Competitive salaries and a generous vacation policy may keep employees happy, but the true culture of a company can’t be bought. Empathy in the workplace, or the awareness of other people’s feelings and needs, must be actively fostered. You heard that right: Empathy is the secret to building a more formidable company. 

Try this exercise: Tomorrow at work, check your competitive nature at the door. When your colleagues come to you with criticism, hear them out. When your employees are struggling with a tricky project, give them a chance to voice their concerns. Adopt a more empathetic approach to business and co-working, and you’ll soon reap the benefits of a palpably happier workplace.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy often gets mixed up with its less powerful cousin, sympathy. Whereas sympathy is simply feeling sorry for someone, empathy requires a more difficult mental stretch: putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Taking time to understand where someone is coming from narrows the “perception gap” that exists between individuals. People just want to be understood, but often it’s difficult to get outside yourself and take that initial plunge in bridging the gap. 

How does this apply in a workplace scenario? Let’s say, for example, that a colleague has just lost a loved one. A perfectly normal, sympathetic reaction would be to offer condolences and then move on with your day. An empathetic person, however, would wonder how she would feel if she lost a loved one—and then, considering the specific circumstances of her colleague’s life, she would have a deeper, fuller understanding of what he’s going through.


A Valuable Business Application

Understanding where people are coming from? Examining the logical and emotional factors behind people’s decisions? Recognizing people’s struggles as being valid? These core tenets of empathetic behavior would benefit any work relationship if they were practiced regularly by management and employees. 

But before companies adopt empathy into their core ethos, the value needs to undergo a PR facelift. Either people perceive empathy as being at odds with the cutthroat corporate environment, or it strikes them as a sentimental HR initiative. Instead, as Rene Schuster, former CEO of Telefonica Germany, states, “Empathy is not a soft nurturing value, but a hard commercial tool that every business needs as part of their DNA.”

Schuster knows this better than anyone: After implementing a company-wide empathy training program, Telefonica Germany saw a 6 percent rise in customer satisfaction after two months. As these results demonstrate, when corporations show empathy to their employees, those employees feel valued. And when employees feel valued, guess what? They’re also measurably more productive. It just goes to show: Empathy is as beneficial to your bottom line as it is to your employees’ well-being.


Introducing Empathetic Practices

If your company doesn’t have the resources to undergo formal empathy training, your personal efforts can foster a better office environment on a grassroots level. 

Empathy plays into every level of the corporate hierarchy. If you’re a manager, the next time an employee comes to you with a problem, greet her with open ears and the willingness to communicate. Or, on the flip side, perhaps you’ll be able to explain your boss’s erratic behavior by appreciating the difficulties she’s experiencing at home. Empathy also has a place between colleagues: if an employee is causing issues on a project, try to understand his point of view. This empathetic perspective might help you identify the specific roadblock that’s slowing him down—and move past it together. 

By taking a moment of reflection before reacting, you can make your next interaction with a colleague an empathetic one. And if you need any more convincing, practice your listening skills by giving this story on empathy in the workplace a listen.


About the Author

Ken Sterling is the senior vice president and chief learning officer at BigSpeak. Ken’s main focus is marketing and partnering with our Fortune 1000 clients to create specialized consulting programs with effective leadership development objectives. Ken is also responsible for BigTechnology, our initiative to develop best-of-breed learning management systems for our clients.

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