There's one word that separates today's good leaders from great ones: Empathy. Yep, that touchy feely word that's been locked out of boardrooms for generations.

Empathy in the workplace might be at an all-time low. Mass layoffs, bottom-line thinking, and the decline of mom and pop shops where people knew their customers -- all common. 

Business is becoming, well, impersonal. 

Grocers used to sell their goods through a checkout line where someone always bagged the groceries. Paper or plastic? Today, most people breeze through self-serve checkout lines. Others send groceries (and all shopping needs for that matter) straight to their doorstep. 

Moreover, machine learning and artificial intelligence continue to grow in popularity. These technologies make decisions that formerly passed through the minds of humans and therefore at least grazed emotions. 

Why a lack of empathy in the workplace matters

The problem is this: Organizations at their core are a collection of people, who make decisions based on feeling (as described simply by Simon Sinek in this must-watch TED Talk). Each of your team members craves the chance to be part of something bigger than themselves -- a chance to create value and receive empathy in return. 

So how can your company foster the human connection its team members need? It starts with understanding that feeling valued (alongside a sense of belonging) still drives that connection. In other words, you need empathy. 

How top leaders build empathy in the workplace

Here's a quick guide with nine practical steps to help you build, or regain, empathy in the workplace: 

  1. Get emotional. I know, I know. This one flies far from conventional business wisdom. But I have seen trust and relationships form faster when leaders share how they really feel. Show your heart. 
  2. Ditch the corner office. It's difficult to empathize when you can't witness. Executives need to be with their people. 
  3. Set connection goals for leadership. Require executives to meet with one different employee (across the entire company, not just their own team) every week. If you have five executives, that's 260 employees in one year. 
  4. Listen, listen, listen. People desire to be known. If you aren't asking them what they think or feel, you're shutting them down. 
  5. Assume positive intent. You hired your team members to do great things. Assume that they come to work each day to do just that. 
  6. Care personally. Have you had dinner at an employee's house with their family? Get to know team members outside of work. 
  7. Show individualized appreciation. Survey your company to find out how each individual prefers to receive appreciation. In the form of quality time? Words of affirmation? Discovering each individual's preference helps you to avoid a one-size-fits-all empathy approach. 
  8. Invest in a People team. I'm not saying scrap traditional HR processes, but it's pretty important to have one team solely focused on supporting your people and culture. 
  9. Drop the worst sentence in business. Finally, can we all agree to drop the whole "it's nothing personal, it's just business" saying? Business is always personal. Trying to remove the "personal" often sterilizes culture and pushes barriers toward empathy. 

Empathy is tough. It's messy. A lot of us don't naturally come by it. But if you shift toward empathy in the workplace, I promise that you -- and your company -- will grow greater.

Published on: Nov 20, 2017
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