Workplaces Need More Empathy

As it appeared in the Daily Nation on June 16th  2020

Dr. Lucy Kiruthu

As a people, we need more empathy.  We need more empathy at the workplace, at home and at every point of interaction with other human beings. As most people like to define it, empathy is putting ourselves in the shoes of the other person. When we do so, we know if the shoes are comfortable or if they pinch. If they are comfortable we consider them good for a walk, if uncomfortable, we feel the pain the other person may be feeling and we may even get the shoes replaced. Empathy is about being aware that other people have feelings, recognizing those feelings, seeking to understand them, and responding humanely. By being sensitive to the feeling of those around us, we become better social beings.

Psychologists recognize three types of empathy namely cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman describes cognitive empathy as what helps us to know how the other person is feeling or thinking, emotional empathy as helping us feel how the other person is feeling, and compassionate empathy as being what moves us to help. All three types of empathy have a place in the workplace.

The workplace brings together people with different backgrounds and personalities. Besides, we have those who hold positions of authority and others with little or no say. Empathy is a competency that we all need in the workplace. To relate better with our colleagues and customers, we need to understand them. Those in positions of authority need to consider empathy as a crucial leadership competency. How can one lead people if he/she does not understand them? Most great leaders display empathy. Empathy helps them understand their team’s perspective. Empathy also gets them to reach out to their team members and to support them go through challenges.

We are living in a challenging time. In the world of business, some have lost their jobs and others are not sure how long they can keep their jobs. When in a position of authority we can become insensitive to what is going on in the lives of those who count on us to make the right decisions. For example, if we own a business we might consider firing an employee to be as simple as signing their termination letter. Being empathetic calls for much more. It is impressive when businesses leaders hold candid conversations about the challenges their businesses are facing. Some have opened up to their staff about financial struggles their businesses are facing because of reduced economic activities. Others have involved their teams in making decisions on how best navigate the crisis. With great compassion, others have supported laid off staff as they move on.

How best can we show more empathy in the workplace? There is no script to being empathetic as every situation may be different. During this COVID-19 pandemic, it remains important to acknowledge the different emotions we are having. We also need to encourage speaking about how we feel. Having open conversations about challenges we are facing and possible interventions is the starting point of being more empathetic.

Dr. Lucy Kiruthu is a Management Consultant and Trainer. Connect via twitter @KiruthuLucy

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