How can we build up empathy in such exhausting times?
By Jo Faragher on 24 February 2021
Kevin Shah believes that empathy can be a “superpower”. So much so that he has developed a piece of technology that can help build up our empathy ‘muscles’ by sharing videos and stories that spark discussions and help employees understand how others might be feeling.
“To understand and harness empathy there is no better time than difficult times,” he says. “This concept of difficult times is that it is more than personal, the community is going through it. During difficult times, practising empathy will lead to stronger relationships, and others reflecting empathy back to us. Questions like how are you feeling or what is your story can lead to incredible moments of empathy. During difficult times, just listening and understanding each other can be the most powerful antidote.”
Shah might be onto something, but even at a time when lockdown restrictions in the UK are set to ease, many employees are struggling with their own circumstances. They might be feeling isolated after weeks of not seeing someone else, they could be feeling trapped between work and family obligations, or perhaps a loved one is ill. Even if our intentions are positive, drumming up empathy for people in different situations to ourselves can be more challenging during a global pandemic.
Putting others first
“What’s tricky about empathy is that you have to put yourself out of it, you’re putting the other person first in that conversation. So if a colleague feels stressed, your instinct is to say I’m stressed too,” says Karen Niven, professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School. “Their situation might be different to yours but is not necessarily enviable or better or worse – just different. And they need to be heard and understood.” Our worlds have shrunk during successive lockdowns and this clouds how we see things and perceive others’ challenges, particularly those in groups whose experiences are different from our own. “This means it’s easier to group people by characteristics they don’t actually consider important – for example whether they have young kids – and this clouds how we see things.”
Elva Ainsworth, who supports companies through change, says that it’s crucial we become more purposeful about finding out about others because the visual cues that were there in the office are no longer prompting us to ask questions. “We need to be more expressive and ask for help. People who have been on furlough or out of work may be feeling a sense of not being fully valued, it will be affecting their self-esteem. All of the emotional challenges are heightened,” she says. Something as simple as a Teams or Zoom call without a business agenda, or managers catching up one-to-one with employees can make a difference. “Put more structure around those intimate conversations,” she advises, “and value relationships above tasks, as this will pay dividends.”
Shah’s tool, called Jaago (which means ‘to wake up’ in Indian), gives organisations a library of films around issues facing under-represented groups. A mobile app encourages employees to watch around six minutes a day, and then record their responses to what they have watched. They then receive a score as their knowledge of others’ stories builds and those who share the stories can gain points too. Shah believes this ‘democratises storytelling’, and helps to avoid situations where people feel traumatised or drained after sharing very personal experiences – an issue faced by many Black professionals last year after the death of George Floyd. He admits he has shared his own vulnerabilities during the pandemic as a way for employees to understand him better. “They feel psychologically safe and are able to share their stories and be vulnerable. I have employees who share they feel lost, they don’t have a career goal. I got that privilege to listen to them after I shared my vulnerability,” he says. Having conversations with employees to navigate those feelings helps them to feel “more productive and energetic” for sharing, he believes.
Suki Sandhu, founder and CEO of INvolve, an inclusion consultancy, says that adopting a more empathetic tone on an organisational level isn’t always straightforward. “Organisational empathy requires employees to take the time to identify and appreciate the experiences of their colleagues, listening to and acting on the different views, experiences and challenges of each individual,” he says. “Simply, an empathetic workplace requires a conscious, company-wide effort.” And when a business is impacted in the way it has been by the pandemic, this can be especially difficult. He adds: “As a conscious and empathetic leader, you should always provide the chance for your teams to ask for help, and if they don’t ask, offer platforms and channels for them to do so. Placing communication at the core of your people management strategy encourages people to speak openly and empower them to seek support if they need it. This will also go a long way to ensuring that your colleagues can understand the challenges and experiences of each member of the team too.”
Sandhu argues that empathy can be the “facilitator of inclusion” because it brings people in the workforce together and helps them see unique points of view. He agrees with Ainsworth that creating those touchpoints needs to be more deliberate, particularly at a time when communication happens virtually. “At the end of the day, inclusion is all about being human and treating people with kindness and therefore empathy and emotional intelligence are vital. However, while empathy is clearly important, it is not enough for companies to encourage their people to ‘understand’ each other at work and leave it there.”
Looking to the longer term, equipping managers with greater empathy skills will pay dividends, believes Professor Niven. A high priority should be giving them time in their working day to build and use these skills, too. “Organisations should recognise that the load of the line manager has far increased, and re-allocate some tasks so they can do a good job of looking after the people they manage,” she says. “Active listening training is one of the most important things you can offer, or look to shifting administrative duties to someone else so that they can take on more emotional work.” Too often, promotion to manager roles doesn’t prepare the individual for these softer skills, but businesses will see the value of this post-pandemic, she concludes: “It’s quite ad hoc at the moment but I would hope this is just one of the positive changes we see come out of this situation.”
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