Love in the time of COVID-19: How empathy can strengthen a business

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Alongside the devastating human health impacts of COVID-19, people are contending with threats to the very businesses they rely on for their livelihoods. In the UK, we face evolving Governmental measures; workforces being asked to work from home, and huge economic uncertainty. Amid all this anxiety, companies are having to make tough decisions about how to successfully negotiate the next few months. But amid the studying of balance sheets and impacts on the market, there’s an important tool for employee engagement that must not be forgotten: empathy.

Often derided as being of little tangible value, with the very term ‘soft skill’ being viewed as laughable, empathy is not always considered vital to business activity.

But in reality, empathy packs a punch that few might expect, and can actually help to strengthen a business.

it’s just about nodding at the right times, isn’t it?

It’s hard to quantify empathy. I mocked my wife for being emotionally invested in a 30 second Mr. Kipling advert; and yet I bawled at the end of Paddington 2.

Because the thing about empathy is that it is different for everyone: shaped throughout our lives by our own values, experiences, cultures, influences, ambitions and more. (Though to be clear, I am not a Peruvian bear.)

And while some people appear to convey it more than others; there are people who don’t appear to have it at all. (Bet somebody just popped into your head…)

But nevertheless, we all understand more or less what empathy is: the ability to relate to (or even actively experience in some cases) the thoughts and feelings of others.

Sounds lovely. But it’s not business-critical, right?

Here’s the problem: at first glance, empathy appears to have no place on the tangible chess board of business. You don’t see the queen looking concerned for the welfare of a pawn when it’s taken; instead, she fights back.

Empathy often carries a stigma in the workplace: as if the very term ‘to act professionally’ means removing all emotion wholesale, and becoming a productive automaton instead. And it’s true that there are some circumstances where ‘high’ emotions can become obstructive to agreeable outcomes.

But when it comes to the crunch, genuine demonstrations of empathy can help to strengthen businesses in real-world ways – particularly when it comes to things like staff productivity and motivation.

The Businessolver 2019 “State of Workplace Empathy” report, for instance, found that 78 percent of surveyed employees would work longer hours for a more empathetic employer. Meanwhile, 93 percent said they were more likely to stay with an empathetic employer. So in terms of staff retention and satisfaction, empathy is vital. In fact 82% of employees said they would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organisation.

Empathy is essential for day to-day business transactions . It can help us to understand the needs of customers better; to help colleagues to feel valued; to recognise why a colleague might be behaving or performing the way they are if they are under stress; or to be able to see where a business partner is coming from during negotiations.

What’s COVID got to do with it?

COVID-19 is impacting almost everyone in the world, and it is causing great fear. And fear can be a driver of irrational behaviour; knee-jerk reactions; and stress.

As leadership work on their action plans, and share them with colleagues, it can be easy to focus on delivering the facts and figures – which will be stark and challenging for many.

So now is also the time for leaders to truly demonstrate empathy for their colleagues. Compassion and understanding can help put employees at ease; enable them to think more clearly; and motivate them to want to work through challenges instead of shying away from them.

It’s especially important in a time when so many people are working remotely, and conducting meetings over the wires. Hunched over the desk in the spare room/kitchen/garage, we miss out on those visual cues, the nuances in the voice, and all the human connections that we forge by being physically near someone.

Self-isolation can also have a significant impact on wellbeing and motivation. Businesses therefore need to be compassionate when it comes to performance expectations, and perhaps even be prepared to compromise on these in order to focus on the priorities.

When isolated from humans, we urgently need humanity to shine through.

How business leaders can demonstrate empathy

Think about the diversity of your organisation. Whether you work in a local, small business; or in an international business; a workforce anywhere can encompass a smorgasbord of backgrounds, cultures, views and values.

Leaders, then, need to be able to see and understand the range of perspectives of their teams, and to be able to convey empathy effectively.

Here are a few quick tips that leaders can do to demonstrate empathy in a way that will reward them, their teams, and their businesses.

  • Remember empathy in corporate messaging: When sharing challenging updates with the organisation or your team, don’t forget to incorporate language that is compassionate or values-based. Thoughtful language goes a long way.
  • Remember you are a role model: What you do as a leader shapes what is seen as acceptable among your team. You could consider small changes – such as not sending emails out-of-hours, so that your team doesn’t feel pressured to work at the weekends.
  • Listen actively: Show that you understand the person sharing concerns with you, by asking questions, and summarising their concerns to ensure you understand properly. This is especially important when meeting online or on the phone when visual cues are scarce.
  • Reflect on your own experiences: If you’ve felt overwhelmed or anxious about being in a certain position, you’ll have a better idea of what a colleague must be going through emotionally when they’re in a similar position
  • Have a wellbeing strategy: create opportunities for employees to discuss their mental health and wellbeing with others in a safe space, and promote wellbeing tips across your platforms. And don’t undermine this by then imposing unrealistic deadlines and expectations on staff.
  • Celebrate: Empathy is not just about understanding the worrying stuff. It’s also about sharing in joy during successes and good news. Recognise your colleagues when they perform well, and show your happiness for them.

Interested in demonstrating more empathy in your business? We can help you think about your internal communications and messaging. Get in touch with us here.

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