The future of talent

Leading with Empathy

terena-bell

Sophie Solomon

Sophie Solomon is a Global Marketing Executive with over 20 years of experience. She is the Sr Manager at Accenture and speaks four languages.

terena-bell

Sophie Solomon

Sophie Solomon is a Global Marketing Executive with over 20 years of experience. She is the Sr Manager at Accenture and speaks four languages.

In 2017, I was on a quest to grasp how mindfulness and emotional intelligence played a role in the work environment. I intrinsically felt that the artificial boundaries between work and home were … well, artificial. I also trusted, from my personal experience, that being humanly connected with the individuals that worked for and with me often led to an unleashing of creativity, productivity, and loyalty. It also created a work environment that was fun, emotionally safe, and unlike a traditional workspace. It felt more like a lifestyle. Our team stuck together, experienced minimal turnover, and our renewal rates with our clients were enviable. What was the secret sauce? Human connection and empathy.

What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to perceive and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of others. Why is it important at work? Because once we practice empathy, individuals feel seen, validated, and most importantly, the work relationship shifts from transactional to symbiotic. The experience we give others becomes just as important as what we get back. When humans feel connected, their work becomes a manifestation of who they are. And through empathy, leaders have the power to bring the authenticity in their workforce and unleash the best in them. It is not surprising that empathy was deemed the “most important leadership skill” in a September 2021 Forbes magazine article. Once considered a soft skill, empathy is today a superpower that leaders need to cultivate to attract and retain talent.

Let’s explore some innovative concepts.

A top-down approach

There are companies like Brighton Jones, a wealth management company, that staff a Director of Compassion whose sole role is to infuse, promote, and nurture the compassion muscle into the DNA of the company. At Brighton Jones, employees and clients alike have the opportunity to participate in the MESI ( Mindfulness-based Emotional and Social Intelligence) program and get trained in mindfulness and empathetic practices that promote self-awareness, intentional management of emotions, and recognition of other people’s emotions. The company is highly focused in enhancing the human experience in the world of finance to drive financial success through a lens of intentionality and purpose-driven decisions. According to their testimonials, their “…team [is] more focused, more effective, and happier. And those benefits translate directly to [their] clients: [their] advisors are better listeners, better connected to the emotions associated with money, and more attuned to how finances relate to broader wellbeing.”
When leadership sets the tone, the culture follows. Leadership buy-in is essential for any initiative to permeate across an organization. Empathy is no exception. Leadership models and influences behavior and has the power to create policies, build programs and ensure their deployment and adoption. Brighton Jones exemplifies it. Considering the current employer’s challenges with attracting and retaining talent that we highlighted in our January column, it’s vital to create a work environment where leadership’s commitment to the employee’s human experience is palpable. It may very well put an organization, no matter its size, on the desirable destination map.

The low-hanging fruits

In my last article, we touched on the titles of Human Resources Executives, including VP of People or Chief People Officer (CPO) and how they indicate a corporate pivot into people-centric cultures. Let’s dive deeper into its significance. These executives’ responsibility is to manage the human capital of an organization and to act as the top people strategist. Just as important, the CPO role is to bring the company culture to fruition through strategic storytelling — it means ensuring that the company values are reinforced with every initiative. So when the CPO sits at the leadership table and has just as much strategic influence as the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or the Chief Marketing Office (CMO), it centers workforce compassion as a priority. Something as simple as the title of the executive responsible for optimizing corporate-wide, people-centered activities can sway the talent that is looking for its next professional home.

But title alone is not enough! There needs to be substance. As leadership has the power to create titles, it can also demonstrate empathy by sponsoring and creating programs that are human centric. ERG (Employee’s Resource Groups), EAP (Employee’s Assistance Program), PTO ( Paid Time Off), and paid family leave are some expressions of human-centric corporate programs. In addition, leaning into flexible work hours, embracing hybrid work models, and a distributed work force speak of a culture where the individual needs are accounted for and respected. With that said, it is also important to consider practicing empathy from an angle that goes beyond policy, tapping into authenticity and intentionality.

Building the empathy muscle

After these past two COVID years (and no real end in sight!), it is unwise to ignore the personal and emotional circumstances’ impact on our mental health. It is no different when it comes to our work life. Our mental and emotional capacity is stressed by COVID, and recognizing that is a key step toward betterment. Likewise, leadership that recognizes this, using empathetic vocabulary to discuss and normalize it, gives us license to determine the right course of action.
Our ability to recognize our mental state calls for self-awareness — not always an innate skill. Leaders are no exception. The good news is that just like any other skill, it can be learned, developed, and strengthened. Self-awareness is a key ingredient for empathic leadership. In a 2018 article from Forbes magazine, the author describes how, “Great leadership starts with self-awareness.” For leaders to be effective when their workforce’s struggles are real and palpable, they need to be mindful of their vocabulary and their engagement style, as well as their overall message. They need the awareness to appreciate the daily experience they give their workforce beyond policies and programs. They have an opportunity to “show up” with the wellbeing of their workforce in mind.
The best way to develop self-awareness is by learning about mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of becoming fully aware of the present moment, completely and without judgement. It calls for being 100% present. When practicing mindfulness, there is no such thing as multitasking. Mindfulness requires an intentional focus inward and an acute sensitivity to one’s environment, state of mind, and intentionality. When applied in human interactions, the experience we give others is one of unconditional attention and psychological safety.
With mindfulness, leaders are more intentional about the culture, engagement quality, and experience they want to give their people.
Apps such as Calm or Headspace were designed to provide simple ways to learn about mindfulness and to practice and develop the empathy muscle. They offer bite-size five- to 15-minute daily sessions that can easily be incorporated in a daily walk, afternoon nap, or nighttime routine. They gently and methodically build and tone our empathy muscle while building a quieter and clearer place to retrieve in stressful times.
To take it one step further, many corporations including Adobe, Bed Bath & Beyond, and others offer free yearly memberships to their employees as a benefit. These membership can also be covered by private health insurance.

Flexibility: Find a way to say, “Yes, we can try this!”

The last two years have proven that the New Working Normal has a different face. Companies need to adapt and revisit their internal people resource policies and infuse greater flexibility with hybrid working models, distributed workforces, and flexible hours (just to name a few). In addition, these policies message inclusion and recognize the need to address different work styles, preferences, and most importantly, realities. It also communicates trust as it empowers the workforce to choose the model that’s best fitting and simultaneously leaves the performance accountability in the talent’s court. It is a mature and compassionate model that assumes best intentions, accountability, and responsibility.
On a final note, it takes courage to change, adapt, and reframe the foundations of employment. Showing empathy is a form of vulnerability, and it can be intimidating for both the talent and the corporation. Change is also uncomfortable and disruptive, especially when the introduction of human experience into a company’s DNA does not come with a user guide. There is a perceived notion that empathy and emotions are a sign of weakness; it is actually the opposite. Vulnerability demonstrates courage, discipline, and emotional strength. Having the courage to change and adapt is one of the greatest survival skills.
Empathy is a key ingredient that creates a human-centric, inclusive, and psychologically safe environment. As such, it that can also be a key corporate differentiator. In a talent’s market, where individuals have a greater opportunity to craft where and how they want to work, why not choose an environment that recognizes its talent as essential human contributors rather than disposable skill. It is also an insurance policy for talent attraction and retention.
Let’s challenge ourselves to leverage the resiliency we’ve tapped into since the beginning of the pandemic and adapt how we engage, lead, and take new risks by embracing an empathetic approach at work.  

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