How to Create More Empathetic Workplaces

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To create a culture of empathy, leaders should recognize that empathy isnt a single trait. Its a suite of skills to practice over time.

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The core theme of this year’s NeuroLeadership Summit, held in Mid-November in New York City, was creating more human organizations. For many leaders, that boils down to one metric: empathy.

But as we learned in our keynote address “Empathy in Action,” the business world (and society in general) often subscribes to a number of myths around empathy. This conventional wisdom, the science suggests, leads us to make worse decisions when it comes to interacting with people. However, if we can defer to research-backed approaches, we may do ourselves, our colleagues, and our larger teams all a giant favor.

What empathy is (and is not)

Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, is one of the leading researchers into empathy. He presented some of his findings at this year’s Summit, and many focused on reexamining how empathy really works.

First, we should get our priorities clear. We ought to think of high-performing teams, Zaki says, as groups of individuals whose abilities are greater than the sum of their parts. In other words, all-star teams don’t necessarily perform the best. Leaders should really strive to cultivate psychological safety in their teams to help everyone interact meaningfully with everyone else. This leads to decreased stress, improved morale, better feedback, and more effective collaboration.

Next, Zaki encourages us to think about empathy not as a single trait, but as a suite of skills. According to the research, the best empathizers know when to share others’ pain. But they also when to show they understand and when they care about the person’s pain. Empathy doesn’t always involve stepping into another person’s shoes.

How can teams practice empathy?

NLI’s review of the empathy research leads us to leveraging the SCARF® Model. It’s one of the foundational models of neuroleadership, composed of five elements of social threat and reward: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. When we appeal to people’s SCARF® domains with social rewards, we naturally start doing the work of empathizing. We build psychological safety and help people feel more connected to one another.

For instance, when a manager begins a meeting by laying out the agenda and roles of each person at the meeting, they help to satisfy people need’s for certainty, the C in SCARF. If they also call out someone’s recent contributions, they work to build status, and if they highlight two people’s joint contributions, they help build fairness. On a more general level, the manager is empathizing with his or her colleagues, building psychological safety by showing they understand and care about people’s needs.

This is how to turn a single trait into a suite of skills. This is how to build a culture of empathy.

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