Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person – is a critical part of building emotional intelligence as well as being a powerful leadership skill. The ability to put ourselves into another person’s shoes means we understand how our actions will impact others, which in turn helps us manage our behavior according to their needs.
The importance of empathy carries over into the modern organization too. I've seen incredible change happen when executives strive to better understand the feelings and concerns of their team members, customers, vendors and other stakeholders.
In a brilliant example, new hires at Ford Motor Co. don weighted "empathy suits" that simulate what it feels like to be an expectant mother or an elderly driver. It's easy to understand how this helps them design better car experiences. This focus on understanding the needs of others has a bottom-line impact too, especially in a tight labor market. As research from Business Solver demonstrates, your team is more likely to stick around if they feel their employer exhibits empathy.
Yet building an empathetic organization goes way beyond strapping on a pregnancy suit. It requires strategically implementing change in several key areas. And while most CEOs say the state of empathy needs to evolve, most of them struggle with exhibiting empathy in their organization.
Consistency is key and improving the atmosphere in your organization can have an immediate and far-reaching impact. Let's look at four strategic ways to build more empathy in your organization at the system level.
1. Grow people … the right way
In my work as a career coach for entrepreneurial individuals, I often hear them speak about their desire to grow, expand, learn and develop new skills. Smart, capable people want to constantly improve their skill set, and expect positive challenges in the workplace. Empathetic companies understand this desire and provide appropriate training experiences and career development.
Too often, there is a pre-existing and rather rigid training program in place, where people get slotted into "management training" or "sales training," etc. That can work, but if you really want to build individual success and job satisfaction, you’ll want a better way to identify training needs.
The first step, as the team at Mind Tools explains, is to review and update job descriptions on a regular basis. As people grow into their jobs, they'll often work far beyond the stated job description, and that expansion should be documented.
Secondly, it's important to understand that everyone’s training needs are different. For example, if you need to train your team on new privacy legislation, for example, don't just lump everyone together in a conference room for the afternoon and go over the endless details. Instead, be strategic about what each person on the team needs to know – i.e. how it impacts their work – and train accordingly. This will help you avoid pulling people off high-value projects to needlessly spend time "learning" things that have no practical relevance.
A solid training needs assessment is a good place to start, giving you a way to compare existing skills to need competencies in a thoughtful way. Ultimately this will help you provide the right information in the right way so your people truly benefit from the experience.
2. Pay them on time
This might seem obvious, but your team deserves to get paid accurately and on time. This is, after all, the tangible measure of what you feel their work is worth and any delays or inconsistencies won't just mess with their bank balance – it will mess with their opinion of your organization.
The reality is payroll is getting increasingly complicated. I see it all the time in the tech industry, where I often consult on digital transformation and brand building; company payrolls often include regular salaried and hourly employees, contractors, and overseas employees being paid through an Employer of Record (EOR). All of these have different regulations and requirements attached, and "different" means "more room for error."
The key to preventing errors in payroll is data accuracy. An example of missing or incorrect payroll data can be; a commission being skipped due to reporting delays, a consultant missing out on their payment due to record-keeping issues, or a partner bonus being skipped due to a change in internal policy. See, there are a lot of working components (read people) in an organization and all of them are not always well aligned. But the negative impact that these payroll errors on your key stakeholders is not something to take lightly.
The best way to avoid these preventable delays is to use an automated global payroll system. This doesn't just simplify the reporting process for payroll; an automated system will help ensure all payroll data is accurate by flagging missing info early in the process. It will also streamline the process for employees and managers and provide a real-time dashboard for team members so they can feel more in control of their financial affairs.
3. Make them stakeholders to your success
When you treat everyone on your team as an important stakeholder, you demonstrate an understanding of their need to be recognized for the contributions they make.
With respect to any asset, if it is undervalued by its investors, it has a negative impact on its long-term value with you. Treat your employees unfairly and they will make you notice (with respect to their performance, their support of you on key issues, or their exit)
When Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace was released, the business community gave a collective gasp at the level of disengagement and discontent in the workplace … and the billions of dollars companies were leaving on the table by not addressing the problem. Since then I see more focus on workplace culture and engagement initiatives, a positive sign for the future. Yet close to half of the current workforce has thought about leaving their organization, and workplace culture is often cited as the reason why.
To boost engagement in your organization, begin by understanding the depth of the problem. Do your workers know what is expected of them? Do they have the materials and resources they need to meet those expectations? Do they consistently receive recognition for good work, and are their opinions valued? Do you offer planned performance reviews and give them an opportunity to share their goals as well as their frustrations?
Empathy begins with listening, so make it a common practice throughout your organization to ask the tough questions and go about fixing what's broken.
4. Reward them
Recognition is a vital component of an empathetic organization, and it must go beyond the weekly paycheck and the year-end bonus. Implementing a peer-initiated employee recognition program can help you sustain and grow a positive culture.
It can be as simple as recognizing birthdays with a small gift, hosting "lunch with the CEO" for individuals or team members or gamifying a recognition program that lets coworkers build each other up in real-time. SaaS recognition programs like Assembly can even integrate into Slack for ease of use.
Some people can generate empathy more readily than others, and some organizations are just naturally more tuned in to their people. Regardless of where your company is, there are strategic ways you can learn from, listen to, and more fully engage your employees. And that means a better result in everything your company produces.
Building an empathetic organization begins with small and seemingly simple steps like paying your employees on time and being cognizant of their needs. Yet it can soon grow into a culture that is passionate about personal value, employee growth and widespread buy-in. Change starts simply, yet the repercussions can be massive if you make empathy a strategic priority.