How to use empathy to get more from your team and improve workplace communication.

15th May 2018

Empathy is fundamental to building strong, trusting professional relationships. What more could you be doing to manage your team with greater compassion and understanding in order to improve communication, increase productivity and minimise loss of team morale?

In my job as an elocution teacher and public speaking coach, people often assume that my sole focus is on vocal technique, body language and overcoming nerves. Often however, there is a subtler side to my teaching, particularly when I am working with those in positions of authority who are required to motivate others and communicate difficult or bad news to subordinates without damaging morale and trust.

Be a manager, not an ogre!

When working with CEOs, senior managers and even those in the medical professional, I am always mindful that these are experts at the top of their game who have climbed their career ladders by being mentally astute, ambitious, driven, resolute and hard-working.

These are individuals who often thrive on results, not relationships, and who will almost certainly expect the same levels of excellence and detached determination from their subordinates as they demand of themselves. Showing weakness is an alien concept; whether admitting self-doubt or professional insecurity, failing to secure a big contract, or becoming overly pally with those beneath them on the career ladder. For these alpha-professionals, communicating bad or difficult news is often done in an abrupt, matter of fact way, with the overriding sentiment being: ‘These are the facts, this is what we are going to do about it, dry your eyes and get on with it.’

Make empathy your friend

What I always tell these individuals, is that when they are communicating difficult news (such as a contract loss, a professional rejection or a failure to hit key goals) or when they need to motivate their team to work harder and aim higher, using empathy will actually improve long-term results, efficiencies and trust, rather than being detrimental to a manager’s authority and making them seem ‘soft’.

In my experience, what many professionals fail to realise is that empathy is a key driver in maximising team productivity and morale. Indeed, a recent study by DDI found that leaders who were able to listen and respond with empathy, performed 40 per cent higher in overall performance, engagement, planning and decision making than those who weren’t.

Empathy is in your toolbox - use it!

You want a workforce who is loyal and hard-working and yet who gets results, right? The same DDI study also found that, surprisingly, only 40% of frontline leaders were considered to be proficient or strong in empathy. Furthermore, a 2017 Gallup Report found that only 15 per cent of a workforce were ever fully engaged, leaving a staggering 85 per cent of workers functioning at a sub-optimal level, simply going through the motions with indifference to the outcome.

Getting the most out of your workforce by using empathy to communicate and motivate your team, whilst also using empathy to help understand why the vast majority of employees ‘can’t be bothered’ to give their all at work, is one of a manager’s most powerful devices when they want to achieve greater productivity and yet it is one of the workplace’s most underused and underdeveloped assets.

What is empathy?

Before I go on, I should probably define exactly what I mean when I talk about empathy.

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes and to see things from their perspective. It is the capacity to understand a situation from another person’s viewpoint and to have an awareness of that person’s thoughts and feelings and an understanding of the impact that your words will have on them. In other words, if you were the person being addressed, how would you best like a piece of news or an instruction to be communicated in order for it to have the most positive impact possible?

Some key points to remember:

  • Empathy can be learned: You might think of yourself as a tough individual whose ‘softer side’ simply doesn’t exist. Not so. The largest ever study into the genetic basis for empathy, undertaken recently by University of Cambridge, found that just 10 per cent of our empathy levels come from our genetics. Therefore, 90 per cent of someone’s ability to show empathy is based on learning, environment and personal choice. Thus, empathy is there to be learned, so learn how to use it.
  • Men can be just as empathetic as women: The same Cambridge University study showed while women are, on average, more empathetic than men, there was NO genetic basis for this (ie, genetically men and women are born with the same level of empathy). Thus, it is behavioural and environmental factors alone that make men less empathetic than women, which are factors that can be overcome with practice and effort.
  • Showing empathy is not a character weakness: Showing emotional intelligence and empathy is not a sign of mental or managerial weakness. Indeed, if your purpose as a manager is to get the most out of your workforce, and if ruling by iron-will has been shown time and again to be less effective than ruling by compassion, then it stands to reason that being empathetic is not a weak trait to teach yourself to use.
  • Understand the difference between empathy and sympathy: Being sympathetic or pitying towards someone can actually lower moral and heighten distress. Sympathy (‘I’m so sorry that you didn’t win this contract and I know it must be a difficult day; we are all thinking of you’) is very different from empathy (‘You must be feeling frustrated at not winning the contract; what can we do to help you win next time around?’).
  • Empathy is not agreement: The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes does not mean agreeing with their viewpoint, but rather it’s about understanding the reasons behind their own conclusions and acknowledging that there are other perfectly valid points of view other than your own.

My top tips for becoming a more empathetic leader:

  • Listen, and listen hard: Listening isn’t just about hearing what’s being said, but about really engaging in what someone is saying to you and understand what has motivated them to come to that conclusion.
  • Withhold your judgement while you hear their viewpoint: If you have asked someone to explain themselves, allow them to finish what they are saying and fully-justify their opinions before you try to impart your own opinions on them. You may find yourself agreeing (at least in part) with them, but even if you don’t you can still make their opinions feel valued and respected by explaining why the company’s conclusions are different from their own, rather than simply trying to railroad them into agreeing with you without hearing them out.
  • Do unto others: Put yourself in their shoes – if you had just lost a major contract or were having your proposal rejected, how would you want to be told? Use your own experiences of good and bad management communication to shape how you speak to your own team.
  • Create a relationship so that your judgement is trusted: Make sure you are on first name terms with all your team and get to understand a little about their lives and what motivates them. This doesn’t mean quizzing your team on every aspect of their personal lives, but it does mean treating them as individuals who are all motivated and wired slightly differently and who have different personalities that need to be managed in subtly different styles.  
  • Take cues from tone or body language: Learn to understand a little about body language and tone so that you can have a better idea of how to respond appropriately to different emotional states. If a team member is angry, upset or anxious, this will take a different response from a worker who is upbeat, confident and cheerful.
  • Echo their words back to show that you see their point of view even if you don’t agree: Don’t just ask someone for their opinion and then wipe it aside and continue with your conversation as if they hadn’t just spoken. Use their words and opinions in your own response to show that you have fully engaged with their input.
  • Respond to their emotions, not yours: Encourage people by nodding and engaging in what they are saying, and remember to keep the focus of your communication on their emotions, not on yours.
  • Give praise when it’s due: Thanking your team for their hard work and acknowledging when work has been done well is hugely important to motivating and incentivising a workforce, but is so often forgotten and overlooked. Make rewarding success and loyalty a priority.
  • Don’t impose your will on your workforce: You want people to work hard for you because they feel respected and valued. Win your team around by incorporating their ideas and opinions into your overall strategies and processes, rather than steadfastly imposing your will on every aspect of the workplace.
  • Smile and be human: Maintaining a professional relationship doesn’t mean you can’t be human. A truly empathetic leader will respond emotionally to those around them. Smile and connect with your colleagues. Just because you’re a boss doesn’t mean you can’t also be ‘you’ in the workplace.

ENDS

About Cambridgeshire Elocution

Cambridgeshire Elocution is run by vocal coach and presenter Charlotte Grundy. Charlotte works with individuals who have lost confidence in their voice and aims to help people communicate clearly, effectively and with personality. Charlotte believes that the key to changing the way we sound is through having a clear understanding of how the voice works. For more information, visit www.cambridgeshireelocution.com