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Empathy 2.0: The Answer to Changing Employee Needs

and on September 9, 2021
Resources All Employee Engagement

Burnout. It’s a big issue for leaders and organizations. In fact, according to a recent survey by Monster, 95% of people are considering leaving their jobs, and being burned out is the most common reason. This study isn’t a one-off; the data is widespread and reveals that people are unhappy with their workplaces. A Microsoft Corp. survey of global workers reveals the majority are struggling or just surviving in pandemic work conditions and many (41%) are considering leaving their employer this year, with 54% of workers saying they are overworked and 39% citing exhaustion.

We shouldn’t be surprised that people feel overwhelmed and burned out. Employee engagement has been an Achilles’ heel for decades, and new pandemic-related challenges have intensified the issue.

Leaders are struggling to identify the best work policies for their organizations and their people, including work-from-home options, balancing development and advancement opportunities for those working in person or remotely, and tricky vaccine requirements. Change initiatives that were put on hold in 2020 have created a backlog, and there are also new initiatives vying for attention, time, and funds.

The list of issues continues. How will leaders mitigate the current labor shortage? How will overworked managers – there are 130 million managers leading the world’s 1.3 billion full-time employees – manage their own mental health while trying to address the needs of their teams? If engagement was dismal before, how can managers make things work with all these other obstacles in their way? It’s a lot.

Managers need help. And it starts by ensuring they have the right skills to handle these issues. 

Organizational Empathy: Meeting People’s Needs

The topic of empathy was buzzing long before the pandemic started. Employees have been demanding to be viewed as people first and workers second, and good leaders have begun humanizing their direct reports and embracing vulnerability as a core characteristic. This is what we call Empathy 1.0, and its incredibly important.

But in a post-pandemic workplace, Empathy 1.0 isn’t enough. We need Empathy 2.0, organizational empathy, where at the strategy level we know and act on what our people need. This is empathy at the one-to-many level, and it’s the muscle we need to develop to address the large-scale issues our managers and employees face.

Managers and employees are human beings with pressing needs and these needs can take a lot of forms.

One of the crucial ways for leaders to bring Empathy 2.0 to their organization is by meeting managers’ human needs for resiliency and skill development. This means ensuring managers have the skills they need to prioritize what’s important, to understand what’s going on with their people and to know how to really listen, be present, and clearly communicate. If managers have these core competencies, they will increase the level of engagement among employees and reduce burnout and turnover. The holy grail!

The Manager GPS: Do Your Managers Know Where They’re Going?

Managers need the right skills to address employees’ needs. This “Manager GPS” outlines four critical skillsets: Know My Role, Know My Business, Connect My People, and Get Results.

Know My Role. Managers must understand that their individual contributions are no longer the priority. Their primary job is putting their people first.

How?

  • Hold frequent (daily and weekly) one-on-one and team connects to establish and maintain solid team-level and individual alignment on strategic and individual priorities.
  • Begin meetings by discussing personal impact and then the impact to the team and organization. It’s critical that managers think about their people as people first, before thinking of them just as workers. Managers must ask more questions, listen actively, and talk at people less.
  • Help people establish emotional connections to their work and their teams’ work by creating context for why their work is important. Organizational purpose and individual purpose are foundational for these discussions.
    • For example, if the team is to be held accountable to a new set of metrics or KPIs, don’t just share what those metrics are, but share the context of why and how they support the organization’s strategy and purpose.
    • People don’t want to be told what to do – they want to understand how their actions impact themselves, their team, and the business at large.

Know My Business. If your managers don’t understand the big-picture strategy of the organization, your strategy is doomed. It’s up to leaders to provide this critical knowledge to managers at all levels of the organization.

How?

  • Managers must be very comfortable with the big picture. They need to understand the story of the marketplace and be able to discuss how and why the organization is responding, because sharing change without providing context is what leads to people’s ambiguity, which raises questions, kickstarts feelings of fear and uncertainty, and halts the development of the emotional connection needed to support change.
  • Managers must also feel comfortable saying, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” without the fear of reprisals. It can be very powerful to have a manager say, “You know what? I don’t know why this is happening, but we’re going to figure it out together. And I’m going to be as transparent as possible with how things are changing.”

Connect My People. A major capability of managers is cascading knowledge to their teams and building connections between strategy and individual contributions.

How?

  • Managers must connect team members’ actions to the organization’s purpose. People want to understand how their work impacts the overall goals of the business. It’s not enough to have a list of tasks. Without that personal connection, people are simply operating in a vacuum.
  • Managers must be able to answer questions like, “How does this impact me? Our clients? Our world at large?” The more people feel directly connected to the organization’s purpose, the more they will feel deeply engaged and want to give their best effort.

Get Results. People want to celebrate wins, both large and small. Managers are the primary cheerleaders and coaches in the business. Calling out wins and opportunities to do better is critical.

How?

  • Managers must know how to create a drumbeat of celebration that motivates people during trying times. It’s not enough to celebrate after accomplishing a big goal – it’s important to keep people excited and motivated by celebrating the smaller, daily successes too.
  • Managers must also know how to coach and develop people to become the best version of themselves so they can accomplish more (and then celebrate more too!).

Leading with Empathy 2.0

When people experience empathy at work, powerful things happen. Often that experience involves feeling seen and heard, no longer a number, no longer replaceable and expendable.

An organization’s leaders can give this experience not just to one person, but to many, with Empathy 2.0. By meeting managers’ needs for support and development, you are indirectly meeting employees’ needs to feel seen, heard, and supported as well.

Managers have the power to shift employees’ experience of working in your organization, but they need the skillset to succeed. And it has nothing to do with producing a higher volume or working more efficiently – just getting by. It’s all about meeting the real, human needs of individuals, helping people understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and feel good while getting it done.

That’s why Empathy 2.0 is so important. Organizations that embrace empathy as an organizational strategy will improve manager burnout and individual contributor burnout and drive outcomes that are key for an organization’s long-term success.

It’s more critical than ever for all managers – not just some – to engage people in truly productive, meaningful ways. They need to know how to lead with the head and the heart to create the kind of resiliency we all crave, both for themselves and for the people who choose to work on their teams. Are your managers ready?

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