Thursday, May 26, 2022

Empathy in the workplace

Empathy in the workplace: The shoes in the featured image were bought in April 2021 from a popular fashion store in Nairobi. They were bought ahead of the Railway Ladies Open golf tournament (Erm… had to mention this for the effect as we have just concluded #TheMasters2022 golf tournament and locally the #MagicalKenyaOpen golf season).

The shoe was adorable, and although I already had two pairs of gold shoes, the bargain was irresistible. The price slash was a whopping 75% discount, not even an ardent bean counter (read accountant) like me could resist the temptation to fit them into an already revised budget that was practically cast on stone.

I convinced myself that a serious girl can never have enough of these, so one more pair is still an investment, right?

It has been a year since they were bought, but they have  not been worn for one single occasion, except a brief photo session on their homecoming day. I wore them for the briefest moment to convince myself that I could hack a catwalk in them. The shoes had looked gorgeous on display at the store.

I could imagine how elegant they would look on my feet, which of the outfits in the closet would perfectly match with the shoes, how chic it would be strutting onto the podium, heads turning to check them out… you get the drift.

The thing is, anyone who knows me well knows that I do not do high heels. The highest heeled shoes in my wardrobe are two-inch block heels. They must be ‘block heels’, as I do not trust the pointed stem on stilettos to support my (ahem) weight.

By the way, did you know that to walk on pointed heels is an art? There is a formula for walking in stilettos and the secret is revealed to a select few only. The chosen ones. I promise. Much respect to all the ladies hobnobbing in heels.

I do not consider myself a shoeholic, neither do I have a fetish for shoes. I only have a few tens of shoes scattered between the office, the car, and the house. They are all essential pairs even though only a handful of them get to enjoy the pleasure of carrying me mostly to the office. Then there are the couple of golf shoes which are well worn, faithfully on duty almost every weekend throughout the year.

Empathy in the workplace - Bizna Kenya
Empathy in the workplace – Bizna Kenya

Where am I going with this story?

Lately I have been thinking about compassion and empathy at the workplace. What is empathy? The Oxford dictionary describes it as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Some versions of dictionaries explain empathy as the ability to see things from the point of view of another, or the ability to walk in another’s shoes.

Empathy has always been a critical skill for leaders, but in the present work environment it is increasingly taking on a new level of significance and occupying more space at the center stage of leadership and employee engagement. Tracy Bower posits that great leadership requires a fine mix of all kinds of skills to create the conditions for engagement, happiness and performance, and that empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right.

Conference call courtesy

Prior to the work-from-home era, work or office time took up to 70% of awake time, well, arguably. Work-from-home changed things significantly and it is argued that office time at home is taking up much more than the 70% that it did before.

What with work time boundaries getting blurred, endless virtual meetings that start earlier than the regular workday and end later than the regular work hours.

Generally, the workplace still commands a major part of our days, and it is important for the work environment to be conducive to maintain employee wellness – both physical and mental.

Speaking of wellness, mental wellness continues to be a topical issue in today’s work environment. Amidst the unending pressures of life compounded by the VUCA environment, runaway pandemic and ever-rising cost of living, cases of burnout, stress, anxiety, and depression are on the rise.

According to Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas in 2019, employers were just starting to grasp the prevalence of mental health challenges at work, the need to address stigma, and the emerging link to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). They observe that one silver lining amid all the disruption and trauma over the last two years is the normalization of these challenges.

Empathy in the workplace - Bizna Kenya
Empathy in the workplace – Bizna Kenya

In our local context, the mental health challenges are just as real as in the global context. Increased awareness has also been instrumental in early identification of the need to attend to the challenges earlier with better rates of recovery for the affected persons. Now more than ever, leaders must embrace empathy as a critical leadership skill.

Leaders must enhance their emotional intelligence to be able to identify team members in need of support around mental wellness. Leaders must make a habit of walking in the shoes of their followers.

Leaders need not be experts in mental health to demonstrate empathy, they can demonstrate care by simple actions such as checking in with their teams regularly and listening with compassion. They can demonstrate empathy by putting themselves in the shoes of their team members and considering what it feels like – this is referred to as “cognitive empathy”.

In this case one asks themselves questions like “If I were in his/her position, what would I be thinking/feeling right now?”. Another more effective way to demonstrate empathy is to inquire directly, and then actively listening to the team member’s responses.

The second approach is more like asking the affected person to describe how it feels like to walk in their own shoes, or in my case described above seeking to understand why the shoes have not been worn in the first place. This calls for being more attentive to changes in behavior, patterns, and performance trends.

Empathy in the workplace - Bizna Kenya
Empathy in the workplace – Bizna Kenya

In a recent study of mental wellness in the U.S. Tracy Brower concludes that empathy contributes to positive relationships and organizational cultures, and it also drives results. Empathy may not be a brand-new skill, but it has a new level of importance, and the fresh research makes it especially clear how empathy is the leadership competency to develop and demonstrate now and in the future of work.

A famous quote says

‘Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle, a battle that you know nothing about’.

Empathy requires that we are kind and caring to our co-workers by regularly walking a mile in their shoes before casting judgement on them. Ask yourself today,

“If I walked a mile in their shoes, where would I end up?”.

About the Author

Millicent Mello is an experienced corporate banker, having worked with some of Kenya’s leading commercial banks. She is also a business writer and mentor.

To reach her, email [email protected]

About the Author Millicent Mello is an experienced banker, having worked with some of Kenya's leading commercial banks. She is also a business writer and mentor - Bizna Kenya
About the Author Millicent Mello is an experienced banker, having worked with some of Kenya’s leading commercial banks. She is also a business writer and mentor – Bizna Kenya

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