5 ways to create an empathetic organization

Empathy is a tool that can help your organization thrive. Consider these strategies to develop a culture of empathy that leads to a happier, more productive workforce
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In Part 1 of this two-part series I discussed the importance of empathy as a strategic tool for today’s leadership. I explained how all of my experience and the push towards hybrid work have led me to understand the value of being a Chief Empathy Officer in an agile, fast-moving technology organization.

To go a step further, empathy is something that the entire organization can be built around. The leaders in the organization can start the fire and feed it, but the culture, as a whole, needs to also grow and evolve.

[ Related read: The new CEO: Chief Empathy Officer. ]

5 ways to foster empathy

Here are five ways to significantly benefit your organization by fostering a culture of empathy.

1. Prioritize psychological safety

One of the biggest challenges organizations face is a lack of clarity. When people do not fully understand where they fit and what their contribution is on a daily basis, it causes anxiety. You need to be extremely clear about the strategic direction of your organization. You can’t expect people to be focused and motivated without clarity. It is the key to creating psychological safety inside the organization.

On a practical level, just as you might check on whether people have good ergonomic workspaces, I believe in doing psychological ergonomics inspections. Too often, leaders don’t proactively address all concerns and questions. With other things to worry about, you might assume that things will simply work out.

However, it is critical to constantly check the pulse of the organization and open yourself up to the harsh daily realities people face. You need to have measurements and regular check-ins, along with an open-door feeling, to get past the hierarchies built over many years of working without empathy for our teams.

Psychological safety will not magically appear. You need to work on it every day, with every interaction, and each person needs to feel their part in it.

[ Read also: 5 ways leaders can boost psychological safety on teams ]

2. Be inclusive

Inclusivity is often confused with diversity. Even if your organization is very diverse, people should feel that they can share their ideas and concerns and that they will be taken seriously.

One way to do this is to make sure everyone clearly understands their role in your organization’s success. This will come with frequent contact and lots of transparency. The goal is to bring people along rather than simply explaining where they are going. Be open to their concerns along the way.

This can get complicated because strategy changes often these days – and most modern organizations adopt fully dynamic strategies. As a result, your internal communication efforts must also be continuous. People should be involved in each step of a proposed strategy, and everyone should know what is going to happen next.

Problems arise when people fear what will happen next. If possible, get ahead of these fears at all levels of the organization and address them with consistent and clear communication. Productivity will remain high when people understand where they are going and how they contribute to the journey.

An employee once asked me who their manager was six months after they’d joined. This is a sign of paralysis. People cannot be productive in such a situation. Continuous work on inclusivity can solve this problem.

[ Read also: IT leadership: 5 steps to foster inclusive decision-making ]

Productivity will remain high when people understand where they are going and how they contribute to the journey.

3. Give and receive feedback

Listening is essential. Leaders are expected to listen to their team members, but too often they do things that make people realize they are not listening at all.

One way to show that you are listening is through feedback. When I joined Futurice, I was receiving feedback within a week. Test your organization by seeing how often and how long it takes to get feedback from any leader. Long feedback loops are indicative of a slow organization. How agile you are is a direct reflection of people’s willingness to reach out to you.

4. Learn empathy – and encourage your team to do so too

Many people tend to be less “themselves” when they’re at work. After all, workplace culture is about business; it’s not personal. But when we get to know our colleagues and bring part of who we are outside of work into the workplace, we can create connections that help us understand each other better when life is difficult and thrive when things are good.

This is where organizational empathy comes in. Empathy skills are certainly essential for leaders, but they are equally important for everyone in the organization. Help your organization’s leaders build their empathy skills by encouraging them to make it a strategic part of how they manage and interact with others. Take the time to do team-building exercises and activities that help people across the organization develop empathy for each other, their customers, their partners, and the world.

5. Express vulnerability

Making mistakes and not always knowing every answer should be celebrated as opportunities to learn and help your organization grow. A willingness to learn and solve problems in difficult times should be an organizational strength. Authentic demonstration of these vulnerabilities will encourage others to show courage as well.

Authenticity and empathy work hand-in-hand. Work to express your weaknesses and your humanity to connect with others, even though it’s not always easy. To build trust, people need to show weakness, and this trust must constantly and authentically be reaffirmed. Only then can it become part of the organizational culture and strengthen your strategy.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Simo Leisti is the group CEO of Futurice, an international digital engineering and innovation company with a total of seven offices in Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the UK.