If you're struggling to figure out the best way to address your organization's employee engagement issues, here's some great advice: Leave that conference room, put down your spreadsheets and action plans and make a commitment to spend more quality time with employees understanding who they are and what they need.

Am I talking about conducting focus groups? That's one valuable method, for sure, but this is broader than that. The big idea is to step back and use empathy to truly connect with employees.

"Empathy is about understanding," writes Michael Ventura in his book, Applied Empathy. "It lets us see the world from other points of view and provides us with diverse perspectives on problem solving that can lead us to new and better ways of thinking, being and doing."

When it comes to employee engagement, "empathy is not some mystical power but a skill that each of us can make a part of our daily practice and the organizations we serve," writes Ventura.

How can you apply empathy to understanding employees (and knowing how to act on that understanding)? Start by adopting these five mindsets:

  1. Curiosity. Too often, I observe leaders and others making assumptions about employees. Instead of thinking that you already know what's going on with people, Ventura advises that you become the one who constantly asks questions. "Seek out information at every opportunity. Don't be afraid to go out on a limb in order to know someone or something more deeply. Curiosity helps us get outside of ourselves and see things from new perspectives."
  2. Honesty. Empathy "requires unvarnished honesty" . . . requiring that you create the safety that employees need to give you the whole truth about what they're feeling and experiencing.
  3. Vulnerability. Writes Ventura, "People want to connect on a real, human level with each other. Vulnerability comes from having the strength to know our own flaws and own them when necessary. When you do this, people are able to see you for who truly are, which gives them the confidence to share their own imperfections with you."
  4. An open mind. "Insights can come from anywhere and everywhere," Ventura observes. My experience is that even a casual conversation with employee can lead to an epiphany, if you're paying attention.
  5. Perseverance. Ventura's advice: "Applying empathy isn't always easy. But don't give up on it. Every time you practice empathy, using it to lead with deeper understanding or tackle challenges with more meaningful perspective, you increase your capacity to do so."

The true nature of empathy is "a compass that will guide you when you need it most. As your empathetic insights grow and improve, new insights will undoubtedly emerge. Trust them, and trust yourself to know what's right for you on the path ahead."

Published on: Jun 4, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.