It goes without saying that you can't successfully operate without empathetic leaders. A study conducted by Businessolver indicated that 98% of HR professionals and 92% of employees believe employers that are empathetic actually improve retention rates.
Yet less than half of employees polled would describe their employers as empathetic, and a lack of emotional connection has been at the center of several employment law cases in the past year. HR's own identity struggle between corporate entity and employee advocate often discourages victims from seeking the department's help.
“Every organization should see empathy as something that’s a growing cultural value," Jon Shanahan, CEO of Businessolver, told HR Dive. “Rapid changes in the workforce, including greater diversity, require a different way of thinking about how companies can align with the values that employees have."
Little wonder, then, why empathy serves as a crucial learning and development topic. As companies look to create new generations of leaders, they'll need to look beyond industry know-how for training material.
The role of empathy at work
When people put aside their differences and their biases, they are better able to work together towards a common goal. Thom Markham, PhD founder and CEO of PBL Global and best-selling author, explained the relationship between empathy and employee performance outcomes. Learning success, he said, is often tied to measurable behavioral changes.
For example, teachers in traditional education evaluate students based on ability to follow the rules and perform well on tests. However, empathy takes learning to a much deeper level, and is observable by the way in which individuals are able to self-reflect and then see others with greater clarity.
"The workplace is the perfect environment in which to practice empathy,” Markham said. Science has determined why some people have empathy and why others don't; it comes down to a physiological state of the heart and mind that most of us tend to overlook.
“In order to integrate empathy with corporate learning, we must learn how to put people into an empathetic state of mind,” Markham added. He pointed to the example of Google, which found that humility, a close cousin to empathy, was an indicator of a highly functioning team.
Employees require empathy to thrive
We live in a society that is cognitively-driven in almost every way. “Our college graduates do not come out with skills that prepare them for things like teamwork or collaboration,” Markham told HR Dive. This is where most new hires either sink or swim.
Younger workers must learn so-called soft skills from colleagues, which requires a level of understanding of both self and other people. Those who can connect with others tend to succeed, while others become alienated and unhappy. This is a huge part of the problem we see with low engagement levels in most workplaces. People are just so disconnected and into themselves.
“The heart is intimately involved in a regulatory system that uses emotions to fuel, support, and guide brain functions,” Markham writes in his book "Redefining Smart," “to fully activate the brain the heart must be soothed as well.” Markham also encourages anyone interested in learning more about the heart-brain connection to review the nearly 20 years of research conducted by The Heart Math Institute.
The exciting thing about teaching empathy to employees is that it opens them up to a new state of thinking and being. Mindfulness training, relaxation and stress reduction programs can help employees experience self-awareness, which in turn creates empathy towards others. “When people are in an open and empathic state," Markham said, "they are more creative, innovative, and able to take in a broad range of information and synthesize it.”
It’s natural for human resources professionals to want to measure empathy, in order to show real business value. However, Markham warns, “we must move beyond the outward behavioral indicators of empathy and our own definitions of what empathy is.”