At the beginning of the year I read an article from Melinda Gates explaining how instead of setting a New Year's resolution, she chooses a word of the year. Like Melinda, I was drawn to the simplicity of focusing on one word for 12 months.
I've always believed entrepreneurs have a strong sense of empathy because it's at the core of what they do--understanding customer pain points to develop thoughtful solutions that meet customers' needs. But empathy isn't just good for business, it's good for humanity. That's why this year I've committed to focusing more on empathy in the workplace--to practice empathy as a leader and encourage others to do so.
Over the last five months, I've had some successes, and naturally, some failures. Here's what I've learned.
Empathy can be learned.
Many amazing leaders openly discuss the importance of empathy--Brene Brown on how it's good for relationships, Satya Nadella on how it's good for innovation, and Tim Cook on how it's good for inclusiveness.
One thing they all have in common is the notion that empathy can be learned--and they're right. Research validates that those who believe empathy can be developed are more likely to engage in behaviors to help them develop it.
Empathy is contagious.
The best way to have your team adopt a more empathic mindset is to start with yourself. You'll find its effect to be contagious which, in return, shapes work culture.
Take, for example, an employee who misspeaks in a meeting. If the manager responds with an outburst, the employee feels inadequate and as a result, the culture becomes timid over time. Alternatively, if the manager responds empathetically, they have the ability to shape an empathic culture that yields trust and inclusiveness.
Empathy requires connection.
Empathy is more than just responding--it's connecting. In other words, digging deep within yourself to identify a feeling that is similar and then verbalizing how you feel with an individual.
I've found the best way to connect is to build trust, and the best way to build trust is to be transparent about your vulnerabilities. By doing so, it signals that it's okay to not be okay. We can all, at some point, relate to not being okay.
Empathy can be challenging.
Being empathetic comes more naturally when you've been in a similar situation--it allows you to tap into the feelings you felt, and in return, you empathize with the individual. Where empathy is challenging is when it doesn't come reflexively.
Alternatively, when we're vulnerable and are challenging ourselves to be empathetic, we look for positive reinforcement in return. When empathy isn't reciprocated, don't give up.