By Janice Gassam-Forbes
When trying to foster a workplace that is equitable and inclusive for all, it is imperative for leaders to be well-trained in inclusive strategies. There is one key trait that all great leaders should possess. Some may call this trait the crème de la crème of all leadership traits: empathy. Empathy is our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others and to understand what another person is experiencing. Leaders that are more empathetic may be more effective at fostering diverse and inclusive workplaces. How can organizations assess the empathy levels of prospective employees? And how can leaders develop and increase their empathy?
Everyone’s level of empathy is different. To gauge your level of empathy, an empathy test can be enlisted in order to understand where you stand. Empathy is one of the key determinants of emotional intelligence. Those who are more empathetic tend to also be more emotionally intelligent. It would be beneficial for organizations to include some sort of empathy measure when evaluating job candidates, and particularly those seeking leadership roles in the company. Leaders should be assessed for empathy at the start of their employment. It’s good to have an understanding of an employee’s empathy levels, but it’s important to understand that empathy is also a trait that can be developed. During performance reviews and evaluations, leaders can be coached on increasing their empathy skills. Empathy training should be incorporated into the annual training that employees receive and should be done on a continuous and ongoing basis.
For leaders who want to develop and increase their empathy for others, there are a few different tactics that can be employed.
- Listen. Research indicates that listening to other people from different walks of life talk about their experiences and journey through life, difficulties, hardship, and triumph can impact our empathy levels. Organizations should create opportunities for leaders to engage in this dialogue and to allow employees to be able to voice their concerns and experiences in a non-threatening environment.
- Slow Down. Stopping and slowing down to smell the roses can be one way that we can connect with others. Listening is very important but if we are unable to slow down and stop multi-tasking, being able to really hear the experiences of another person from a different walk of life than us will be difficult. Resist the urge to multi-task. Research actually indicates that when we try to multi-task, we end up doing both tasks more poorly than if we had performed either task separately.
- Be Curious. Individuals that are more curious tend to also be more empathetic. Make a concerted effort to interact with other people from different walks of life, as well as reading and watching the stories of those who are different from you, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Asking questions allows the other person to feel like their voice is heard and they are valued. Asking questions also shows that you are giving another person your attention.
- Volunteer. Research indicates that the act of volunteering may actually increase our empathy levels. Organizations should incorporate volunteering opportunities into the corporate structure. Partnering with charitable organizations is one solution. Aside from increasing employee empathy levels, volunteer opportunities can also allow employees to feel like they are making a difference and an impact on their organization.
Empathy is an essential quality that each leader in every organization should possess. While it’s effective to measure empathy levels of each job applicant to ensure you are hiring employees that possesses this critical trait, employees can also be coached and trained on how to develop their empathy levels, helping to foster a more inclusive workplace.