Empathy at Work: How to Encourage and Engage in Empathic Communication

Shola Kaye

In April, DINT was joined by Shola Kaye for From Empathy to Equity: A Hands-On Workshop for Leaders. Shola shared some wonderful personal anecdotes, findings, and tips to encourage empathy in the workplace.

Shola is a multi-award-winning speaker, communication consultant, and international performer. Having once worked for blue-chip corporates in high-pressure industries like investment banking and IT management consulting, Shola now runs workshops, speeches, and classes as corporates, universities, and schools. She’s delivered for clients like Oracle, Belkin, and Leica, and she has been featured in or written for Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, and the BBC.

In one of her first jobs in the US, Shola found that she lacked communication skills that would have enabled her to thrive. Instead of offering training or providing a mentor, the company put her on probation. Something similar happened when she moved back to the UK: rather than helping develop staff and encouraging them to learn and grow in areas where they lacked, the company isolated them and, in a specific instance, fired Shola. She found that she couldn’t flourish when the company she worked for didn’t invest time in advancing her skills, or even in understanding why she was struggling. Shola is just one example of millions of employees that feel undervalued and underrepresented.

Following her personal experience, Shola decided to dedicate time to building empathy in the workplace, and she’s created a clear layout on why empathy in work is important and how to improve empathy at all levels.

Why Empathy at Work is So Important

Empathy is a vital ingredient to a successful workplace, and it has positive implications for both our personal relationships as well as in the workplace. Empathy affects work engagement, customer satisfaction, innovation, creativity, and, more obviously, diversity, equity, and inclusion. It seems as though, despite the fact that empathy is so vital to our personal relationships and wellbeing, it is not prioritised in the workplace. In fact, empathic connections are often admonished in the workplace.

However, empathy has been found to be vital, not only for the wellbeing of employees, but for the success of the company. Shola shared HR consultant, Josh Bersin’s, data on the link between listening and employee engagement.

(source: Josh Bersin)

According to Shola, ‘shining the light on the things that go on and making the problems more visible is really important for all of us to do.

Why it’s Particularly Relevant Right Now

While empathy has always been vital in the workplace, it is much more challenging, and much more important, in the current climate. With everything that’s occurring around the world, from COVID-19 to the Black Lives Matter movement, ‘there’s a bigger need for people to be able to put themselves in others’ shoes and to understand what’s going on.

In the pre-pandemic workplace, it was easy to bump into someone in the company kitchen, walk over to their desk for a chat, or pop to the pub for a few drinks after the office closes. Now, though, it takes purposeful intention to be more vulnerable, and more courageous, to reach out and ask how someone is doing. And while this is vital, it is a tricky thing to approach when we’re all sitting behind screens, especially if we struggle to express our own vulnerability. There are countless companies around the world with employees who have never even met each other face to face, and it’s incredibly difficult to build relationships with people that you’ve never seen. In a lot of ways, the pandemic has made it much more difficult to be empathetic at work.

Equally, though, it shone a light on the importance of empathy. With the pandemic has come increased anxiety, stress, isolation, and boredom; over two-thirds of UK adults expressed concern about the impact of the coronavirus on their mental health and wellbeing. While this is devastating, it has encouraged an onslaught of importance placed on these issues, and, in turn, on empathy. If we plan to recover from the effects of the pandemic, empathy needs to be a priority in the workplace.

Barriers to Empathy at Work

In addition to the barriers presented by the pandemic, there are some ongoing barriers that continue to affect most companies from engaging in empathic communication. The primary barrier is that of empathic management. It’s been shown that as people become more powerful, they become less dependent on others, and it is harder for them to be empathetic. It’s important for organisations to acknowledge this and overcome it by actively working to create an environment of psychological safety. They can do this by encouraging employees to speak up and removing the consequences when they do. By encouraging active, empathetic listening, corporations can ensure that empathy is a top priority.

The First Step

‘I think of empathy as being that red carpet for a lot of the work that we do, whether it’s communication or inclusion. Empathy skills should be the first step for individuals of companies… put yourself in the shoes of somebody else and understand what they’re going through.’

Shola explained that the first step of creating an environment of psychological safety is empathetic listening.

‘It seems like people don’t give others the space to just have their lived experience. It’s vital to respect the experience that someone has.’

Empathetic listening is all about taking a step back from reacting to what people say and instead just hearing it without any need for challenge, debate, questioning, or inputting your own opinion. By listening carefully and asking the speaker questions to help them open up, you’ll be able to truly understand what that person’s been through. It’s this understanding that leads to a healthy, safe, empathetic environment. It’s so easy to jump into a situation with our own opinion, to debate and challenge, and when we do this, we stop people from sharing their full experiences.

With an increased push for diversity and inclusion in the workplace comes an unfortunate increase in performative acts of training that usually appear as checkbox exercises. While these trainings may be good at raising basic awareness, they very rarely stay with people long past the initial introduction.

There are various ways to move past simple box-ticking exercises and into real listening. Shola mentioned an exercise called proximity conversations, a term coined by Bryan Stevenson, that essentially encourages senior leaders to arrange sessions in which they can sit and listen to their employees’ stories and experiences in order to understand where they’re coming from. It has been found that these proximity conversations are just as, if not more so, effective than the commonly-adopted interventions such as unconscious bias training or anonymising resumes.

By listening without a desire to solve problems or input your opinion, you can encourage empathy in your workplace. This simple act of listening will likely illuminate what is needed for the entire organisation to succeed.

Empathy to Equity Programme

In order for empathy to go further, Shola introduced the Empathy to Equity Blueprint, outlined in the image below.

In order to begin to implement empathy, begin each meeting by asking how people feel about a project — even if that is simply implementing a traffic light colour question (red = bad, yellow = okay, green = good). Even if you’re managing a big group, this will help determine what is going on behind the scenes in employees’ lives so that you can encourage positive productivity and engagement in your workplace. Only by practicing active listening can we engage in empathy, and only by engaging in empathy can we help our workplace thrive.
Shola runs the Empathy to Equity Programme. If your company is interested in working with Shola, contact her via email (info@sholakaye.net), on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/sholakaye/), or via her website (https://sholakaye.com/).

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