workplace kindness all starts with empathy

Kindness is a powerful way to break up workplace stress, and it starts with applied empathy. (Image via Sean MacEntee, Flickr)

Random Acts of Kindness Week is here! In honor of the importance of kindness, let’s build more workplace kindness together this week.
Kindness is a powerful way to build engagement, encourage well-being and break up workplace stress.
Celebrating kindness reminds us to incorporate it more into all aspects of our everyday life — with family, friends and our communities. Ever tried sharing unexpected kindness? It’s contagious and creates a ripple effect of shared goodwill and feelings of appreciation.
But what exactly causes people to act in kind ways? It starts with empathy. And the effects of a more empathic workplace culture go beyond kindness and less stress.
“In the workplace, empathy is often portrayed as a requisite tool for emotionally intelligent leaders. But perhaps more notable is the strong effect on performance,” Forbes columnist Jessica Amortegui writes in her post, “Are You Using Apple’s Secret Skill at Work?”
Read on to find out what empathy is exactly, why it’s needed, and how one company is systematically and methodically using “applied empathy” to beat workplace stress and create a healthier, happier culture.

How Empathy Works

Empathy creates “psychological safety,” and studies show this safety net is the “most essential ingredient of highly effective teams, according to Forbes. In response to empathetic leaderships, absenteeism goes down and employees are more engaged, more creative and make better decisions.
It’s also a trust-builder.
“We could all take a lesson from nurses about being empathetic,” DeLores Pressley writes for Smart Business. “Time and again, nurses rate as the most trusted profession. Why? Because they use proper empathy to make patients feel cared for and safe.”
So what is empathy exactly?
Harvard Business Review describes empathy as a “deep emotional intelligence that is closely connected to cultural competence” — and therefore indispensable in today’s fast-paced, diverse business world. We need more of this understanding, not confrontation or competition.
Yet the very people who need to be empathic usually aren’t.
“Though empathy is almost universally seen as desirable, it is not distributed evenly among all levels of management,” according to HBR columnist Ernest J. Wilson III, a dean at the University of Southern California. A survey of the university’s graduates now in professional positions found that “empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives.”
These “are the very people who need it most because their actions affect such large numbers of people,” Wilson writes. He points to a classic New Yorker cartoon that “nicely captures the irony here”:

A boss behind a big desk tells a hapless subordinate, “The important thing, Smithers, is not that we understand one another, it’s that you understand me!”

Empathy alone doesn’t create great leadership or magically transform a workplace, but it’s still the “emotional foundation” for positive change, according to Wilson.
So how do we become more empathic, and by extension, kinder? As Wilson points out, a person can be naturally disposed toward empathy and still struggle with practicing empathy in the workplace. Cultural competency, fear, “trying to fit in” or preconceived notions about workplace behavior can hold back empathic leadership and culture.

How to Take Empathy from ‘Squishy’ Theory to Practical Strategy

There are proven benefits to compassion, empathy and kindness in the workplace. The challenge is implementation.
A must-read HubSpot blog post describes how one company is intentionally and strategically creating a kinder workplace through applied empathy:

At Sub Rosa, a Manhattan-based strategy and design studio, enabling employees to escape their biases and develop a more empathic form of reasoning is vital to the agency’s core philosophy and daily practice. Not only have they launched a successful podcast on the topic, they’ve also made empathy an integral part of their office’s culture.

The company’s founder and CEO, Michael Ventura, “recognized a deficit in the way empathy was discussed and practiced in agency culture,” HubSpot’s Karla Cook writes.
The conversation on empathy tends to get weighed down in theory.
“So many of the articles that we read and see out in the world are very theoretical when they talk about empathy,” Ventura tells HubSpot. “It sounds very squishy. It sounds very loose, sometimes a little hippy-dippy.”
He wanted something more down-to-earth for his company: “We really wanted to think about how empathy can be practically applied, and what is the process that would take.”
Applied empathy — as opposed to empathy as a vague ideal — “is essentially a method of detaching from your personal biases and tuning into the greater context of a situation.”
The first step, always, is “beginning to recognize specific empathic strengths and deficits in yourself.”
Then, Sub Rosa’s empathy-building process takes on three areas:

  1. Organizational structure and culture
  2. Consumer perspective
  3. The greater cultural context or climate

Sub Rosa has also identified seven “empathic archetypes.” The practical result of this framework is a workforce that has a shorthand for applying empathy in everyday situations and in their work.
“Everyone at Sub Rosa knows these archetypes and has an understanding of how they play a role in problem solving. … We now have this muscle memory and this shorthand that allows us to solve problems collaboratively by being self-aware,” Ventura tells HubSpot.
Happy Random Acts of Kindness Week! Don’t forget to share your organization’s participation on social media using the hashtag #RAKWeek2017.

Download Your FREE 2017 Employee Recognition Calendar

“In life, one has a choice to take one of two paths: to wait for some special day — or to celebrate each special day.” – Rasheed Ogunlaru, coach and author

Download the gThankYou 2017 Day-to-Day Employee Celebration Calendar for resources and advice to help your organization thrive this year. Our calendar guide gives you the tools and inspiration to build a culture of appreciation every day of the year. Download yours today, absolutely free!
Here’s to a happier workplace in 2017!
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