Make the Workplace more Human by Practicing Empathy
When I formed my executive coaching practice in 2013, the mission was to address what I and many felt was lacking in the workplace; authenticity and empathy. My exposure to the science of emotional intelligence in the late ‘90s changed how I viewed people and organizations.
In my work and research on employee engagement, Gallup surveys since 2000 have found that the percentage of people who are “actively disengaged” — workers who have miserable work experiences — has been as high as 20%. Similarly for those who are “disengaged” — they may be generally satisfied but are not cognitively and emotionally connected to their work and workplace; they will usually show up to work and do the minimum required but will quickly leave their company for a slightly better offer — has been as high as 53%! On average, only 30% of employees have been engaged at work during the past 18 years!
It has been my experience personally and now after conducting hundreds of hours of coaching and interviews that most employees are disengaged because organizations do not foster empathy, authenticity, inclusivity or belonging. Most if not all of my clients understand this almost intuitively, or come to realize during the coaching process that much more effort is needed in this area. Unfortunately many organizational leaders have forgotten that people are humans first and creating an environment where everyone can “bring their whole self to work,” is a significant driver in creating engagement and inclusion.
The recognition of this fact has significant implications for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Several years ago I wrote that authentic diversity happens when relationships are built between people who are different. I fear that some misinterpreted that I was ignoring the need to address systemic oppression and racial injustice.Unequivocally both then and now I am advocating for both a systemic and relational approach to addressing the inequities in the workplace and society. Until we recognize and acknowledge that racial injustice, systemic racism, and inequality are both moral and personal, it is unlikely that real change will be seen. We have significant and overwhelming data and evidence to support the argument that minority groups in most organizations do not have a sense of connectedness and belonging to their workplace. Furthermore, there is an emotional tax associated with being black in the American workplace, and black leaders in particular struggle with feeling authentic at work. Research by McGill University’s Patricia Faison Hewlin shows that many minorities feel pressured to create “facades of conformity,” suppressing their personal values, views, and attributes to fit in with organizational ones.
Perhaps it is important to remind us why empathy and authenticity are so important for all of us and what makes us human, and how they allow our DEI efforts to be transformative. We now know that empathy is triggered when people understand the plight of others and respond appropriately even if they do not themselves feel the exact same emotion but are able to access an experience cognitively through imagination. The most compelling expression of authenticity I have found is from the pen of Warren Bennis. “To be authentic is literally to be your own author, to discover your native energies and desires, and then find your own way of acting on them. When you’ve done that, you are not existing simply in order to live up to an image posited by the culture or by some other authority or by family tradition.” What would your organization look like if all of your employees and in particular minority groups could experience such authenticity, free of microaggressions, racist comments, pressure to conform, code-switching, and suppressing personal values and styles?
As I have written elsewhere I believe leadership is about taking care of others and leadership is about emotions. Neurobiology seems to predispose humans to a preference for leaders who above all else express empathy and compassion. These have a clearly positive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health, and personal relationships. The pandemic, the economic collapse associated with it, and the fight for racial justice have increased all sorts of feelings, including empathy, anger, intolerance, fear, and stress. Empathy as a social awareness emotional intelligence competency, makes a leader able to get along well with people of diverse backgrounds or from other cultures. I agree with Amy Emmert that empathy is the glue we need to fix a fractured world, and furthermore, the superpower to propel diversity, equity and inclusion efforts authentically and from the human experience.
As leaders and colleagues in this moment intentionally practising empathy, consider author Maya Angelou’s comment, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” Brene Brown provides another perspective,“Empathy is simply listening, without holding judgement, emotionally connecting and communicating the healing message of you’re not alone.”