What is empathy?
Empathy is arguably the most human of traits. And yet it’s not traditionally been seen as an explicit feature of working life, or classed among the professional behaviours we are expected to display in what are often high-pressure, performance-based job roles.
But far from being a skill that is relegated to your personal life, empathy is a vital tool that can have a disproportionately beneficial impact on small and medium-sized businesses. Using empathy at work can ensure your staff are motivated, productive and included in your mission, whether your team works closely, or use a hybrid style with some working from home and others in the office, and where the boss is visibly part of the operation.
Empathy typically takes three forms: (1) a state where you can mirror the feelings of others; (2) a cognitive ability to take the perspective of others; and (3) a supportive concern that triggers a need to help find a solution to their circumstances. They are not mutually exclusive types, and are most likely to be a process you go through when relating to others.
How might it work in a business setting?
For SME leaders, adopting these three stages of empathy can have a significant part to play in your commercial strengths and ability to thrive. It can constructively guide your relationships with colleagues and those who report to you – as well as the way you engage with customers – and it can have a positive impact on your brand values and reputation.
The coronavirus pandemic is a useful context for examining empathy, because the uncertainty and impact on all of us as individuals is a largely shared experience. Businesses have had to deal with unplanned, sometimes drastic change, and the best leaders have been those who have taken time to put their employees’ feelings front and centre, while steering the company through difficult times.
Shola Kaye, a communication and inclusion specialist who works with businesses, is heartened by what she sees happening in companies.
“I'm seeing a lot of interest in empathy as a topic right now, from small organisations, all the way to large enterprises. It’s ideal in helping you plot your customer journey, for example, or figuring out how to be innovative, and coming up with new products and new services for them,” she says.
“On the social side, a lot of businesses are hurting right now – as are a lot of customers.”
So actually being able to understand the position that some of your clients and staff are in, because of all the factors that are going on as a result of COVID can lead to solutions-based thinking, she adds.
“How can we take your perspective? Now, what can we actually create for you that is going to work? It's heartening to see how many businesses now are taking this approach.”
Empathy is in fact a key hallmark of leadership, as it has served many successful professionals well in advancing their career.
Undoubtedly, a boss who makes time for staff to understand their issues, through one-to-one sessions or activities specifically held away from premises, will gain the respect and loyalty of the team in working towards their common goal.
And though there’s a risk that being at the top can detach you too much from your staff and their concerns, SME leaders have the advantage of smaller size and flexibility – and it’s never too late to embed these mindsets more formally into your business.
How do I actively employ empathy in my business?
The most important technique is to listen. Your staff will appreciate you taking an interest in them, so learn to ask questions, remembering to acknowledge what they’ve said and how they respond to you. Be patient enough not to jump in with a solution too quickly, as they can feel ignored as a result.
Bad listeners typically do one of three things: they quickly turn attention onto themselves; they pretend to listen but are easily distracted; or they take a passively critical tone and butt in only to correct or contradict you. Even if you fit one of these types, the good news is that you can still learn to listen well.
Our professional lives are very time-poor, but it’s vital for you to set aside time for staff such as an ‘open-door hour’ once a week. That way, they will appreciate that chance to come and air any concerns. With luck, it will also help diffuse any sensitive issues that could get complicated if left to fester.
Courage is also a real strength in demonstrating empathy as leaders, according to Shola. “Quite often, people are aware that their conversations aren’t going to be easy. They may be scared they are revealing things that might put them at risk – whether it’s the way that they feel about colleagues or about processes they think aren’t working. So it requires some vulnerability to get that conversation going.
“To initiate an empathic conversation, it helps when the leader or manager is prepared to share first - to open themselves up to the other person. For a boss to listen and be open-minded certainly requires a degree of vulnerability”.
Can I make empathy a formal brand value?
Yes, and it is highly encouraged – not only because it fosters goodwill among your employees, but it’s a skill that can be particularly valuable in your customer engagement.
Internally, it helps you address complex or difficult discussions as colleagues should understand that they can engage with you and having transparency via a two-way conversation is key. Meetings, too, should follow a similarly authentic approach that considers the needs of introverts as much as extroverts.
In a client-facing context, business can be won through the tactic of improvising your dialogue more naturally with customers. They will appreciate the time offered by you to discuss their situation. Sticking too rigidly to a sales script can create a ‘computer says no’ ambience that can turn off customers and potentially lose you business. After all, who doesn’t want their team to be known as problem-solvers who care?
In short, most people can be empathetic. There’s a subconscious need to help others that can be fostered among your staff, too. The trick is to slow down enough to listen. Your business will thank you for it.