Rewards multiply with workplace empathy

Every morning, 50 executives at Midland Memorial Hospital in Midland, Texas huddle in the main lobby to hear the "promise" of the day—an ideal they agree to implement that workday. Similar gatherings happen in every department of the 464-bed facility, part of a two-year-old initiative to foster positive relationships among staff.

"We had just built a $165 million state-of-the-art medical tower, but patient satisfaction was at 1 percent," said Bob Dent, chief operating officer, who subsequently ran 16 hours of empathy training for new employees.

The missing ingredient was empathy. "We looked at our invisible architecture and our people, and invested in training, in practicing servant leadership, in getting away from command and control thinking. Now, patient satisfaction is at 90 percent."

"We recognize that the majority of people want to be good," Dent said.

It's clear that employers and executives who listen to their employees, consider their concerns and adopt a caring attitude will nurture a more successful and progressive workplace. But learning and practicing empathy has challenges: it is rarely taught, it requires commitment and is difficult to measure.

Organizations that teach their managers to show empathy in all aspects of work will discover exponential rewards, like increased loyalty and retention, increased productivity and happier employees.

The empathy gap, and why to bridge it

Sixty percent of CEOs believe that their organizations are empathetic, while just 24 percent of employees agree, according to a recent study by Businessolver, a benefits technology company. Narrowing the gap is possible, though, and the results are positive, for everyone.

Empathetic behavior shows people they are being heard and therefore appreciated, which may boost engagement, morale, retention and productivity. It fills an innate emotional need that is as important to develop in the work environment as it is in any other area of life.

Empathy's effects may be measured by how long employees keep their jobs, how well they perform and how enthusiastic they are. Businessolver found that one out of three people said they would switch companies for increased empathy, 40 percent would work longer hours and 56 percent would stay if they felt valued.

Unfortunately, "managers fail to recognize that people want more out of work than just a paycheck. They want autonomy, or the opportunity to lead, or do work that has an impact," said Adam Waytz, associate professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

One out of three people would switch jobs for a more empathetic company

  • 40%

    Forty percent would work longer hours for an empathetic employer

  • 56%

    Fifty-six percent would stay in their jobs if they felt valued

Add power to the equation, and the gap widens. "Power reduces the ability to understand how other people are feeling. We literally don't see as clearly," said Dolly Chugh, associate professor at New York University's Stern School of Business.

Conversely, "when you are in a low-power role, you are really good at reading nonverbal cues, remembering more of what was said, being attentive, because you have more of a need from a survival standpoint," Chugh said.

Managers fail to recognize that people want more out of work than just a paycheck.

Adam Waytz
Everyone can learn to practice empathy

Many leaders do know, intellectually, that giving time and attention to direct reports has benefits. Seventy-six percent of CEOs surveyed by Businessolver said they think empathy is important. Yet most leaders need to work harder to convey empathy and make it felt by employees: 31 percent of employees think their supervisors value profit more.

"Our ability to listen is shaped by our own filters—our opinions, whether we agree with what the person in front of us is saying," said Herma Schmitz, partner at Scudder & Schmitz, an executive coaching group in New York. "To leave a person with a feeling of empathy is to train your listening skills." Active, engaged listening also involves asking questions to show understanding and interest in what the other person is saying.

"The best leaders give feedback and take in feedback, being courageous enough to say, 'This is what I'm working on. Help me be better.'"
—William A. Gentry

The empathy gap may point to an inability among leaders to gauge their own behavior. "The best leaders give feedback and take in feedback, being courageous enough to say, 'This is what I'm working on. Help me be better,'" said William A. Gentry, director of leadership insights and analytics at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Body language is another area where leaders can improve their interactions with employees, such as by using direct eye contact and sitting in a comfortable setting, versus across a room or behind an imposing desk.

Benefits across industries

In addition to improving dynamics of interpersonal communications, the tangible benefits companies provide go a long way toward making employees feel cared for, from wellness and fitness centers to commuter benefits and flexible scheduling. Nearly half of employees believe that better work/life balance is a key way employers can display empathy to their employees.

Indeed, industries and sectors of all kinds benefit when companies pay attention to employee, and customer, needs. Retailers, restaurants and other consumer service businesses, for example, typically have high turnover, sometimes more than 100 percent a year at the store associate level, said Barbara Miller, portfolio manager at Federated Investors, Inc. New York City.

"This in turn adds costs such as recruiting and training, and can cut into customer satisfaction. We find that companies that offer better benefits—both financial and non-financial—generate employee loyalty that can enhance long-term sales and profitability," Miller said.

  • 42%

    Forty-two percent of consumers would refuse to buy from a company that they don't believe to be empathetic

Forty-two percent of consumers, for example, said they would refuse to buy from a company that they don't believe to be empathetic, according to Businessolver.

Companies that depend on relationships with distribution partners have an additional challenge, said consultant Linda Saxl Minton. "Businesses have choices of whom to partner with to deliver their goods, services and technologies, just as consumers have choices of where to get these services. Companies that have the ability to listen, to be empathetic, may make better business partners, which could lead to higher revenues."

"Being empathetic to partner needs isn't just good business; it creates an environment where opinions are heard," Minton said. "Issues get raised rapidly and addressed collaboratively."

"Companies that have the ability to listen, to be empathetic, may make better business partners, which could lead to higher revenues."
—Linda Saxl Minton

While some might expect certain sectors to have an innate knack for empathy, this is not always the case. In health care, for instance, doing well at the bedside does not always indicate proficiency with colleagues.

Health care experts say compassionate care is not sufficiently taught in medical programs, but can lead to improved patient-reported outcomes in an industry that increasingly ties finances to producing value for patients. A 2014 study found that doctors' bedside manner can even improve patient health.