Should we be working towards an Empathetic Culture?Natalie Lewis
Empathetic Culture – is this the new future?
The way we work has been turned on its head by the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving many companies to question their purpose, values and culture.
Even just moving from working in an office to having all your team working from home is enough to send most business leaders into a spin! The way you work has changed, the way you communicate has changed, the way your pets and children get involved with online meetings (wanted or unwanted) has changed!!
So if you’re one of those business owners, directors or senior managers, who has had their business and culture tipped upside down, now is the time to consider how you can make positive changes to your business.
One of the key areas of change that I have been championing for many years is creating a culture of empathy as well as commerciality. Some would argue that these are polar opposites of a scale but in my experience of working effectively with many businesses over the years, I can tell you that they are not.
A culture of empathy is not only ethically right; it makes good business sense, too.
What is culture?
Culture is that weird tangible thing that you cannot put your finger on. It’s a combination of your daily habits, behaviours, work environment and the way you conduct yourselves. There’s the feeling of culture that you get; the buzz, the teamwork, the inclusive feeling and then there are the symbols, behaviours and structures that you can see all around us. Finally, there’s the unspoken ‘norms’ and ethos that can’t be seen. That’s why culture is difficult to define.
Wikipedia defines it as “The values and behaviours that contribute to a unique social and psychological environment of a business”.
What is an empathetic culture?
Good question hey? So what is empathy? As defined in the dictionary; “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”.
An empathetic workplace culture could therefore perhaps be defined as; “The values and behaviours that contribute to a unique social and psychological environment of a business with an emphasis on imagining what it’s like to be in somebody else’s situation”.
Things like this are hard to define in a sentence or two, mainly because us humans blend thoughts, feelings, intuition and behaviours. We often ‘know’ what something is but struggle to define it in the written word.
I personally don’t see empathy as a top-down interaction or only something that leaders should show. For me, it’s multi-dimensional and something that everyone in the organisation should practice so that it becomes the norm. If it isn’t normalised, then the culture won’t stick.
We have to be empathetic of others and towards ourselves! We should also be on the receiving end of empathy.
I wrote a post on LinkedIn a few weeks ago about blame cultures and not allowing people to make mistakes. This is a toxic type of culture which often stifles the growth and evolution of the business. It stems from not having a culture based on empathy. You can read it here and let me know what you think.
In essence, we shouldn’t condemn ourselves or others when we make mistakes. Mistakes are what help us to grow, learn and evolve. (I don’t advocate the same mistakes being repeated and not learnt from!! If that’s happening you need to look carefully into the person, management and training).
Now then, I must state here that empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone and is very disempowering. That is not a place we want to be in. Empathy is understanding a person’s challenges by putting yourself in their shoes using active listening. Sympathy is simply feeling sorry for them without actually understanding them.
When it comes to a good blend of empathy and commerciality, it doesn’t mean that you can’t, for example, dismiss someone for breaking rules or being bad at their job, or even make redundancies, it simply means that when going through those processes you apply a good dose of empathy! There are ways of making people feel good about making performance improvements or exiting your business.
Why is empathy good for business?
An empathetic culture creates a feeling of psychological safety. It creates an empowering environment because people don’t feel judged or have a fear of being blamed. It builds trust.
Empathy also grows a sense of feeling understood and valued which allows for improved communication across all levels.
Stress levels are automatically reduced because every individual is respected and feels like they are contributing to a collective purpose.
In my experience, companies with an empathetic culture see improved retention (who would want to move from a great culture?), increased employee engagement, effective decision-making from all employees as they feel empowered to do so and the companies are far better at creativity and innovation. They can flex quickly and respond to crises such as this pandemic far more effectively.
It also means that your brand is seen in a positive light both internally and externally. That can only be a good thing, right?
Creating a Growth Mindset
You may be asking ‘how do you build an empathetic culture?’
Empathy is something that comes naturally to some people, I believe it’s a combination of nature and nurture but luckily it is also a skill that we can develop!
It’s also a case of having self-awareness and a growth mindset. You have to be willing to learn these skills. A growth mindset is one where a person embraces challenges, works to overcome set-backs and learns from life’s obstacles.
When we apply this to business it creates an environment without fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.
Leading from the top
Naturally, people tend to imitate behaviours of the people at the top of an organisation so it is really important that leaders lead by example and openly demonstrate these all-important empathetic behaviours and they become embedded in a company’s processes and ‘ways’; communication, feedback, management, team collaboration etc.
All leaders should learn how to lead with empathy!
Delivering an empathetic culture
I know that there will be many of you who have read this and thought ‘oh yeah that’s a good idea’ and then you’ll go away and get distracted by your daily demands and challenges. Well, it’s no good just thinking this would be a nice thing to have. If you truly want to see change in your business, you need to jump in with two feet and get on with it!
Follow these steps:
- The first thing you need to do is to define your vision and values
- Provide your leaders and managers with empathy training
- Enlist an army of employee-volunteers to help you embed change in your business. These people will be key to delivering changes in behaviours and generating quick wins. Pick the natural influencers in your business.
- Show your army of employee-volunteers how a new empathetic culture will support your business to succeed. Tell them how all employees will benefit. Show the connection between empathy and success so that new behaviours replace old ones.
- Allow your army of employee-volunteers to cascade that enthusiasm and positivity to the other employees
- Start then to embed these behavioural changes into your processes such as training and development, feedback process, appraisals, reward, recruitment and onboarding.
- Ensure that all leaders and managers consistently look for and reward the new, empathetic and positive behaviours.