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The role of empathy in the workplace in improving employee engagement

The role of empathy in improving employee engagement

Empathy plays an important role in improving employee engagement.

Empathy is one of the aspects of emotional intelligence (EI) and EI is all about the ability to recognise, understand and manage our own emotions

EI is responsible for our ability to understand what our emotions are telling us and being able to make decisions in accordance to this. The deeper our understanding of our own thoughts, feelings and emotions is, the more we can understand someone else's.

Thanks to EI we can intelligently use our emotions to build relationships with ourselves and with others. It is empathy that allows us to share and understand another's 'state of mind' or emotion.

In the context of leadership development, empathy is a critical part of:

  • Being able to manage conflict
  • Resolving challenges in the workplace
  • Identifying the needs of our co-workers
  • Being able to actively listen

All of the above functions make empathy a crucial part of emotional engagement. 

Empathy is an important element of developing individuals and teams.

The first step in engaging employees is building trust. In order to feel engaged, employees must feel they can trust the organisation and the individual leader. This can be achieved through making them feel listened to, heard and understood. 

As the world of work is changing, the traditional 'command and control' leadership style became less effective so it was replaced by new, modern and collaborative leadership style based on mutual understanding. It's critical for the employees (especially those of the millennial generation) to feel heard and understand that they are able to trust the person they work for. 

It is empathy that helps create this desired dynamic as it helps managers and leaders interact with employees on a more personal level, with a less task-focused and more humanistic approach.

Empathy allows a manager or leader to fully understand what drives and motivates their employees, which is a crucial element of coaching and mentoring. 

Managing, developing and coaching employees is only possible if a manager or coach is "tuned-in" to the things important to their employee/coachee.

That refers to listening and tuning into the non-verbal communication. The ability to truly listen from an intuitive place, to tune into the emotions of the other person is the area that is linked to empathy.

On the organisational level, the ability to empathise with co-workers can and does have an impact on the business results.

This has been proven and discussed in numerous research papers and books such as a paper written by Daniel Goleman for the Harvard Business Review on 'What Makes a Leader?'.

There's more and more research being published on the topic, we now have enough data to state that 90% of high performers have high EQ as opposed to IQ. What's more, 58% of job performance can be linked to emotional intelligence. This means that while IQ is an important element of success, it is emotional intelligence that plays a bigger role when it comes to business results and performance.

As mentioned, empathy is one aspect of emotional intelligence and EI can be looked at on three different levels:

  • The attitude we hold about ourselves and others.
  • The ability to tune into emotions, feelings and thoughts (our own and those of others).
  • Behaviours that drive our decisions and decision-making processes.

Empathy allows leaders to predict the impact their decisions will have on their employees. It helps them to strategise, build engaged teams, nurture future generations of leaders and inspire their employees. 

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