Encouraging empathy in your organisation

While facilitating an online conversation among a few high-profile women, one of the issues that came up was the fact that so many organisations have become cold places where people are treated as numbers, instead of human beings with emotions. The conversation naturally included the need to create the space for the nurturing nature of women to flourish. I have always been a firm believer in the balancing of the male and female energies in an organisation, to achieve a healthy culture. The fact that we have allowed the imbalance that has created cold, ruthless organisations to prevail, is quite an indictment. The pursuit for constant growth combined with greed are probably the most obvious root causes.

The Covid-19 pandemic and related lockdowns around the globe has put a spotlight on the need for empathy. Many have been able to display great empathy, while others have been struggling. I suspect that those organisations that have typically been bottom line driven, would have found it a lot more difficult to deal with the levels of empathy required in dealing with employees who suddenly had to go into a mini diaspora, while dealing with the inevitable bereavement that accompanied the virus as it wreaked havoc.

In addition, size often matters. In smaller organisations people tend to be closer to each other as they are a lot more interdependent, and it is therefore easier to create an empathic culture. It is much more difficult in bigger organisations where people often feel like they are just a number and easily replaceable. Human nature is also such that we tend to have greater empathy for those in our line of sight, but more particularly, those we consider to be in our “like us” group. The further people are from us, the more difficult it becomes to feel the same level of empathy. People can pass each other in the passageway, without seeing each other as part of the team they should have an empathic relationship with. We also tend to instinctively avoid empathy overload as it can be very stressful when you feel the pain of too many people at once. People generally attempt to preserve themselves by avoiding sensory and emotional overload.

However, not making an effort to increase empathy in the workplace does have consequences. There is a strong correlation between performance and empathy in the workplace. Where there is more empathy, effective communication and improved human connections tend to be more prevalent. Leaders who want to see increased performance should therefore put more effort into creating an emphatic atmosphere in their spheres of influence. There is of course also the consideration of the ethical implications of scenarios devoid of empathy, such as work overload and verbal abuse.

A study done and released by Businessolver in 2017 revealed some interesting data that point to a need to increase empathy in the workplace. Although the study was done in the US, it has implications for organisations all over the world.

  • More than 90% of employees, HR professionals and CEOs said that empathy is important.
  • Employees believe that workplace empathy inspires the workforce to be more motivated and productive
  • 77% of workers indicated that they would be willing to work more hours for a more empathetic workplace and 60% would actually accept a lower salary for the same.
  • 92% of HR professionals indicated that a compassionate workplace is a major factor for employee retention.
  • 80% of millennials noted that they would leave their current job if their office became less empathetic and 66% of Baby Boomers also shared this sentiment.

The study did however show a disconnect between what the leadership thought of the organisational culture and what the employees thought. Only 48% of the employees believe companies as a whole are empathic, versus 68% of CEOs.

In order to create an empathic culture in the organisation, the leadership cannot be passive and hope that the culture will shape itself into what is desired. The tone is set at the top, but there are a number of interventions that may be helpful in empathy becoming central to the culture of the organisation. These include:

  • Communicating the importance of empathy and sensitising managers to the need and usefulness of empathy. Hold them accountable for their actions.
  • Training managers on how to become more empathic and how to instil it in their subordinates.
  • Adding empathic interpersonal relationship building to performance agreements.
  • Demonstrate that the mental health of employees is important.
  • Appoint empathy champions throughout the organisation whose job it is to signal empathy pain-points to the leadership.


Building an empathic culture is not something that happens overnight, especially not if the leadership has allowed the culture to become one that is cut-throat. One therefore needs to be patient and understand that it is a long-term project. It is however also not a once-off project. Once the desired level is achieved, the same amount of effort is needed to maintain it.

It does however take courage to admit that the culture of the organisation lacks empathy, especially if you have been instrumental in shaping that culture. It takes courage to admit that the organisation is on the wrong path. It takes courage to make the decision to change it and it takes courage to implement that decision. The pandemic and the related shake ups have given leaders the opportunity to use it as an inflexion point and change course. Leaders should ask themselves whether an organisation that lacks caring, as its trademark, is the legacy they would like to leave behind. If not, have the courage to change and change the organisation with you.  

More to explore

Outsourced morality

It is incumbent on each of us to constantly evaluate whether our moral compass is still pointing to our true north. We need to continually ask ourselves whether our actions are informed by our own beliefs that we carefully considered, before we concluded that they are fit to be used in our moral compass. How certain are we that we are not just believing what we are because those around us believe it? Or, that we are believing what we are because those who we have crowned with a halo believe it? Applying one’s own mind is paramount if we were to avoid the temptation of outsourcing our morality to others.

Fear can be your friend or your enemy

Whether we like it or not, we were not designed to be fearless. Fear is an emotional response connected to a basic need we all have – to feel safe. In the evolution of the human brain, this had been encoded for a very good reason. Our fear response is designed to trigger an action from us. If it’s a lion, we run. If we were to convince ourselves that we should not show fear and stand our ground, the stand we take is probably going to be immaterial to a starving lion. His fear that you may also be a threat, would most certainly be overridden by his fear of starving to death. Human beings are in any event rather defenceless without our modern weapons.

Know your rhythm

It is important that we work with our rhythm instead of against it. That is a sure way to increase our productivity. In the last number of months, I have started to notice that the number one issue I am dealing with among my coachees is burnout. Often that is because of a lack of understanding of what their rhythm is. We look after ourselves as leaders because we need to give those we lead the best version of ourselves. Selfcare is part of our leadership responsibility.

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