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The past year has led to many difficult conversations, and difficult conversations often lead people to subconsciously put their humanity and empathy aside to make it through unscathed. We are surrounded by job loss, sickness, death, civil unrest and heightened depression and anxiety — in our current reality, compassion is more necessary than ever before.
As a neonatologist, I’ve learned a lot about conveying compassion and navigating through even the most difficult conversations with patients and their loved ones. I’ve now taken what I have learned as an intensive care physician and applied them to the workplace. In medicine and in business, strong communication skills are generally not inherent: Some of the most talented, well-meaning individuals struggle to convey empathy when faced with difficult situations, which makes it even more important to actively take steps to improve.
Even before the pandemic, businesses were beginning to recognize that empathy, a key part of emotional intelligence, significantly impacts organizational performance. Studies have shown that empathetic leaders can increase employee engagement, boost productivity and collaboration, fuel creativity and innovation and increase employee retention. A 2019 study by Businessolver found that 78% of surveyed employees would work longer hours for a more empathetic employer and 82% of employees would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organization.
The rapid shift to remote work and the overwhelming disruption to every aspect of life has elevated the need for compassionate leadership. As work-from-home policies become more and more mainstream, leaders and managers need to not only prioritize empathetic leadership but learn how to convey it while working remotely.
The following skills will help you demonstrate empathy, even when it’s through a screen.
Active listening is defined as the ability to fully concentrate on a speaker, understanding what is being said and thoughtfully responding. Active listening, a key part of demonstrating empathy, is a skill set that also doesn’t always come naturally — it’s learned and developed with practice.
To practice active listening, avoid interrupting, rushing the conversation or changing the subject when meeting with an employee. Suppose a meeting is over a Zoom call. In that case, try to avoid multitasking like simultaneously checking an email or text. To mitigate temptations and distractions, close out of your emails and messaging platforms and turn off desktop notifications before a Zoom call. Treat remote calls with as much respect as you would an in-person, one-on-one meeting.
Active listening helps leaders better connect with and understand their employees and foster an environment of open communication that builds trust and rapport. This component of empathetic leadership allows you to more clearly see things from the employee’s perspective and establish a stronger emotional connection.
Pay close attention to nonverbal language
Empathy often requires a fair amount of reading between the lines. This skill involves not only understanding what is being said but understanding the emotions and nonverbal cues such as body language and tone of voice that accompany the words. This can be even harder to read over video, so pay close attention to employees’ facial reactions.
UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian determined how much weight a group of listeners placed on the spoken word, tone of voice and body language. Professor Mehrabian found that only 7% of a message was derived from words, 38% from the tone and 55% from body language.
This underscores the importance of using nonverbal cues to better understand what an employee is feeling. Also think about your own presence on your next video call. Consider your expressions, the way you’re sitting, or even how your eye contact might be sending a message. People can tell if you are engaged and looking at their eyes, even on a remote call.
Asking questions is another way to demonstrate empathy. Intentional questions about an employee’s thoughts and feelings can help facilitate conversations and encourage employees to be more transparent about how they’re coping. A simple “How are you doing?” or “Is there anything you need or how can I help?” carries more weight in this current environment than it may have before. Be careful not to interrupt. Open-ended questions often reveal the most information and convey empathy.
Implementing these types of questions into interactions with employees, especially while remote, can go a long way in terms of creating and demonstrating a more compassionate leadership style.
Be fully present
A key part of demonstrating empathy is to be fully present when connecting with employees. Virtual connection does not automatically transfer to human connection: You have to make an active effort. While this can be more difficult to convey while working from home, you can still prioritize a fully present demeanor when you’re remote. Touch base with your team members often and avoid only communicating through messaging platforms. Instead, jump on a call or video, even if it’s for a quick question. Make it clear you’re still there for support, resources, feedback, etc. — not just as a manager, but as a human.
A lot of understanding can be gained when workers feel their leader is accessible and someone they can turn to while working from home.
Establish areas of commonality
One of the best ways to genuinely connect with someone, both inside and outside work, is by finding common ground. In the Covid-19 environment, everyone is experiencing disruptions in almost all aspects of life. By sharing some of the challenges you are experiencing in your own life, you can build a strong connection with team members who are likely facing the same challenges. This technique can open the lines of communication with the employee and increase their comfort level by making leadership seem more approachable.
Employees need empathetic leaders to cope with the uncertainty that has become the new normal. The Businessolver annual workplace empathy study noted that year over year, more than 90% of surveyed employees say empathy at their organizations is important. Still, in early 2020, there was a 10-point decline in how many people say their organization was empathic over the last two years.
This points to a need for business leaders to make empathy part of their DNA. With training that includes role playing and feedback, you can develop the empathetic behaviors that are now imperative. Talent firm Mercer summed this up by saying, “Only an empathetic culture can keep employees energized amidst so much uncertainty, enhancing the stability and agility organizations seek in these tumultuous times.”
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