The ONE SKILL You Need for 2022 and Beyond

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Gustavo
Grodnitzky, Ph.D.
January 12, 2022

Many studies have documented the harm the pandemic is doing to individuals, families and organizations and economies. If you are a leader responsible for the health and well-being of your organization or its people, what should you be doing NOW as we enter the third year of this pandemic? What is the ONE SKILL you can learn and practice to secure your own health, the health of your people and the health of your organization?  

Empathy.

A research organization called Catalyst recently published a study of 889 employees and their responses to leaders who displayed empathy during times of crisis and beyond. The results:

  • Engagement: 76% of employees who experience empathy from their leaders reported they were fully engaged. This number was only 32% for employees who experienced less empathy.
  • Retention: 57% of white women and 62% of women of color said they were unlikely to think of leaving their companies when they felt that the companies respected and valued their life circumstances. At the same time, when they didn’t feel that level of value or respect for their life circumstances, only 14% of white women and 30% of women of color said they were unlikely to consider leaving.
  • Inclusivity: 50% of people with empathetic leaders reported their workplace was inclusive, compared with only 17% of those with less empathetic leadership.
  • Work-life integration: 86% reported they are able to successfully juggle their personal, family and work obligations when leaders were more empathetic. This is compared with 60% of those who perceived less empathy.
  • Innovation: When employees reported their leaders were empathetic, they were more likely to report they were able to be innovative - 61% of employees, compared with only 13% of employees with less empathetic leaders.

Common Questions About Empathy

What is empathy? For a good definition of empathy, see the article “I feel your pain”: A critical review of organizational research on empathy, by Melissa Clark, Melissa Robertson and Stephen Young, in Journal of Organizational Behavior. They define empathy as the skill demonstrated by:

1. Connecting with others to identify and understand their thoughts, perspectives and emotions.

2. Demonstrating behaviors that display understanding with intention, care and concern.

Can empathy be learned? Yes. Empathy and empathetic expression are highly coachable skills. They are also complex, and as with any other complex human behavior, they are highly perishable if not practiced in your culture.

Is there more than one kind of empathy? Yes. There are three generally agreed upon aspects of empathy:

1. Cognitive. Understanding how others are thinking.

2. Affective. Understanding what others are feeling.

3. Behavioral. Understanding the cause of behaviors that might not make sense in a different context.

Applying Empathy to Culture

You don’t have to be a psychologist or a mental health expert to introduce empathy into your culture. If you are a leader (formal or informal) in your organization, here are some concrete questions you can begin to ask yourself to practice the three kinds of empathy:

1. Cognitive. If I were in this specific situation, what would I be thinking?

2. Affective. What would I be feeling in this situation?

3. Behavioral. In this situation, what reasonable action would I want my leader to take?

Great leaders in great cultures don’t just consider these questions in a vacuum or for themselves alone. They use these questions to start themselves down an empathetic leadership path. They express their concerns by asking their employees directly. And they listen to their employees’ responses with deeply focused attention.

There is no magic formula to solve complex human challenges. But there is a reliable pattern of human behavior. In the strongest, most engaged cultures, empathy leads to compassion, and compassion leads to action. Action does not imply that a complex challenge is magically resolved. Acting empathetically simply means understanding an employees’ struggle or challenge, finding appreciation for that person’s perspective and talking collaboratively about solutions.

Empathy is far from a new skill. In fact, we are born with it. Over the decades, the perceived value of empathy, as a skill, has waxed and waned. But, given the current war for talent, the ongoing pandemic and the unknown future, empathy is essential for leaders to stay effective and for businesses to stay competitive.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Until then, let’s keep cultivating our culture, together!

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