How to Create an Empathetic Workplace

  1. Empathy is the key factor in engaging your team, and visibility is the key to fostering empathy.
  2. The more visible employees are to each other – and managers are to employees – the more engaged the team will be.
  3. It’s easy to keep everyone in the loop when you have only 20 employees, but how do you scale visibility as your business grows?

Watercooler chats are the lifeblood of a small company. Everyone seems to know what’s going on, seemingly through osmosis. With only a few people on the team, all employees constantly collaborate and work together to solve problems. Company news travels through the grapevine almost instantaneously.

As companies grow, though, visibility lessens. Five hundred employees can’t all huddle around the coffee machine to exchange the latest firm updates – especially when the team is spread out over more than one location.

Ultimately, that reduced transparency leads to a loss of empathy. Some companies attempt to solve this problem by circulating weekly email updates, but those often end up trashed with employees still complaining they don’t feel “in the loop.” That’s because a scalable communication strategy must include dialogue.

You’re in or you’re out

Why is dialogue important? It keeps everyone included and on the same page. Think of your high school days – remember how there was always one lunch table where the “cool kids” sat? That social construct never seems to change, even as we get older. There’s always an “in” group and an “out” group. When an “in” group identifies an “out” group, the “in” group tends to rally against the “out” group.

 This is a dicey aspect of social psychology when it shows up in the workplace. It’s natural to develop connections within your personal “in” group (i.e., your team). But you have to be conscientious about not alienating yourself from other groups within your organization. In fact, studies show that people tend to give preferential treatment to others in their own “groups,” even when the groupings are arbitrary. On an individual level, this can manifest itself in unequal treatment. At a team level, it can create toxic silos.

The visibility-empathy link

When employees don’t feel they know what’s going on, they start to imagine what other team members’ day-to-days are like, even if they have no context or basis for those assumptions. When they don’t understand the more high-level challenges, they start to fill in the blanks themselves. Then, they start to believe that story in their heads – and tell it to others.

Full visibility is virtually impossible, so you have to find a balance between giving and getting enough transparency. This aligns employees toward a common goal and empowers them to ask for the tools they need to monitor their own work and progress. Employees become their own “mini-managers” when they have stakes in the game and feel responsible for their own decisions.

Rally the troops with trust

Ready to increase visibility in your company? Start with these three strategies: 

1. Tackle the tough conversations head-on

Employees want to work for managers who practice authenticity and transparency, yet many leaders are lacking in this area. Leaders must be willing to share first to open up the door for dialogue. This is especially important in tense situations or when different groups don’t seem to be on the same page.

Those difficult conversations are critical. As a leader, the onus is on you to set the example for your employees and also to have tough discussions when needed. It’s up to you to proactively nudge folks to give feedback, and there needs to be an established cultural strategy of actually doing it. 

Managers and direct reports may need to reach a compromise to understand each other’s perspective and context. But if both parties listen, you’ll find people start to recognize those stories they made up from their own confirmation biases.

2. Galvanize your group with all-hands meetings

As a leader, it’s important to control your own narrative by properly educating employees on company happenings, as well as the strategic vision and actions of the leadership team. When employees have a better sense for the “why” of what they’re doing – and they feel like you’re all working toward the same goals, albeit at different levels – they’ll be much more motivated and engaged.

Get everyone physically together in a room when sharing and measuring metrics. This could happen in a monthly operating meeting, for example, or a webinar. Send the information over email if necessary, though that method loses the value of having people physically focused and working together.

When done well, these all-hands meetings energize your team, reinforce shared goals, and provide clarity of purpose. They also help employees feel needed and purposeful, especially when leaders are open about sharing challenges. To keep your meetings effective, make sure you’re surfacing major issues, celebrating wins, spotlighting team members, and providing a forum for all levels of employees to ask questions. Create a steady cadence of these meetings to foster a dialogue-based culture that helps employees feel more “in the loop” and therefore more empathetic.

3. Cultivate personal relationships

It’s also up to you to help employees connect with one another: Schedule opportunities for peers to engage in meaningful conversations or open up a casual dialogue in the coffee line about a new employee’s family. Rather than just ask how someone’s day is going, inquire about something they’re excited about in their personal lives.

I’m fond of saying that “empathy is the grease that turns the trust train.” Empathy gives employees context, better tools to make decisions, and a more solutions-focused mindset. As a leader, it’s up to you to set an example of empathy in the office by having tough conversations, fostering a sense of team cohesion, and pushing yourself to show your “human” side. No watercooler can give you that.

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