Why we need more empathy in our workplaces

Business strategist Mimi Nicklin’s new book Softening the Edge, speaks about building empathetic working environments in a year desperately in need of kindness

November 30, 2020 04:36 pm | Updated 04:36 pm IST

As a marketer and business strategist, Briton Mimi Nicklin is used to lunching with business coaches. One of these lunches was unlike the rest.

In a conversation with a life coach in 2018, when Mimi kept referring to ‘intuitive’ leadership, the coach responded, “Have you ever considered that what you are framing as intuition is actually empathy?”

The simple question kicked off a career in building empathetic working environments in offices globally, and has now resulted in her latest book, Softening the Edge (published by The Dreamwork Collective).

Mimi started writing this book on a plane, in 2019 — incidentally also the year ‘burnout’ was classified as a workplace phenomenon. By the time she finished writing in mid-2020, planes were no longer flying with the frequency they used to, because of the pandemic. This year with its mass layoffs, pay cuts and recessions, has brought the need for greater empathy among employers in sharper relief, believes Mimi.

“The need for leadership teams to understand their employee’s realities has increased. As more Gen Z start working, this conversation will become mainstream by 2021. Our need to connect as humans is far more important and long lasting than our need to connect as colleagues,” she says over a video call from Dubai, UAE.

Though the pandemic year has provided some perspective on taking life slower and being kinder towards ourselves, Mimi hopes that being creatures of habit, we do not snap back into the same harsh routines.

“It is estimated that 95,000 hours of our life are spent at work, and if we are going to commit that kind of time, it has to be rewarding. Business environments that are not good for your mental health are no longer acceptable,” she says.

Excerpts from an interview:

You write in your book that empathy is intuitive. How does one pick up an intuitive quality much later in their lives and their careers?

Empathy is intuitive, and yes, it does take a lifetime of habit to cultivate it. But the great thing about it is that it is a choice, a skillset, something that can be learned. One of the things we know from neuroscience is that it uses the prefrontal cortex of our brain, So simply the decision to be more empathetic will lead you to be more empathetic. By strengthening the want to be empathetic, we can change the pathways in our brain. And like any skill set, the more you practise it the better you get at it.

Corporate culture is largely driven by profit. What is the commercial value of an empathetic leadership, one that is less demanding of employees?

Empathy actually allows you to be more competitive. There are very few engagements in life where a deeper understanding of the people around you doesn’t give you a competitive edge. So whether that is understanding your workforce, suppliers, clients, if you can empathise, you build a better connection with them, which means you are more likely to close a sale, negotiate a better deal, or find a new insight in the market, and of course have a far more driven workforce.

Often encouraged to drive out competition, are bosses afraid that being less aggressive would mean losing out in the short term?

This is a story that I hear often in media, TV , fashion… In all of these environments, it has become ingrained that being unkind is good for business. For many decades, we thought we are rational beings, impacted by the environment, but what we know and need to accept today, is that we are emotional beings. In the end, as people working the same jobs, we are more alike than we are different. People are far less likely to be loyal to you if you make them feel small.

You say empathy is a skillset, but has it ever been devalued as a soft skill? Especially when one is under pressure to be seen as strong?

There is a lot of conversation out there about empathy being bundled as a soft skill. But not only is it a hard skill to master, truly empathetic leaders are very hard to find. People default to being seen as aggressive to get ahead, but the difference that being empathetic brings is that you are able to get the best of people. Remember that being empathetic is never the same as being a pushover, or being weak. This is about connecting with your fellow human beings.

We talk about burnout in unempathetic environments, but is it possible for everyone to “love their jobs”?

( Laughs ) No, I don’t think it is possible for everyone to love their jobs, unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world. But I do think it is possible for many more of us to find fulfilment in our roles within our jobs. A huge part of that is our own mindset, but of course that requires a working environment that is empathetic to your journey in your career, and that helps people find mutually beneficial roles. What we can control is how we engage with others and of course, how we self empathise: how we understand what drives and motivates our own self.

How would you, at a leadership position, make sure that the workplace is a healthy environment for everyone?

The key to almost all empathetic environments is listening, And it’s something that we aren’t taught at all in schools. Often we are hearing our employees but not listening to them. It comes down to the language we use, understanding what is stopping them in achieving more, what is in their way. Being more curious as a leader is being more empathetic. Empathy is contagious, so if you use open body language, employees feel heard and seen, and then they go on to build that empathy across the team.

What other changes do companies have to bring in to build empathetic work environments?

The physical workplace itself is very important. It doesn’t have to be about million dollar offices, but where employees want to be stationed inside, which makes them more motivated. I can share from my own experience — I work with a lot of designers, so we make sure that their stations are not near a window, because the sunlight would mess with the screen. In another office, by just getting fresh milk for tea and coffee, the employees felt heard.

In some organisations increasing feedback routes has made a change — formalising questionnaires and surveys, acknowledging answers, and implementing suggestions based on that.

These are divisive times. Do you think a lack of empathy in workplaces is a reflection of, or a factor in, the lack of empathy in our nations’ socio-political fabric?

For three decades, we have been seeing dwindling levels of empathy, impacted by increasing urbanisation, rise of technology, increasing hours of work and stress. So the level of empathy at our workplace is a reflection of the state of empathy in humanity. People for whom empathising is a habit in personal life, are likely to bring that into the workplace too.

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