Transparency. Authenticity. Vulnerability.
I think this is finally starting to feel like our new normal. The social distancing. FaceTime dates with friends featuring takeaway coffees from different shops. Logging into Slack and Zoom, and calling it your office for the day. The fact that both these events now happen in a shared space.
But in many ways, this also feels like the farthest thing from “normal.”
Seeing the kitchens of coworkers where family meals happen every night. The sounds of their pets, spouses, and kids somewhere in the background. Dens decorated with family photographs. Being inside homes which we would likely never be invited into.
But since COVID-19, how we reach out, from where, and most importantly, the way we connect has radically changed in the past few months. And the line between personal and professional, which was once a clear boundary, is now a figment of where it was or is or should be.
Last Wednesday, we hosted Training With Empathy, a virtual wine and learn. In one jam-packed afternoon, we brought together today’s top thought leaders for a candid discussion about empathy in the workplace. The conversation was not only overdue but, as many of the speakers admitted, much different than it would have been a few months ago.
Today’s Collective Experience
Claude Silver, Chief Heart Officer at VaynerMedia and Training With Empathy speaker, voiced a similar experience when her company transitioned to a virtual office.
“It’s a very intimate invitation that we have been quite frankly, forced into,” says Claude. “The amount of just wherewithal and compassion that one needs to have entered into this type of environment is overwhelming.”
In the office, we have been trained to “be professional,” whatever that means. But, as Kim Scott, bestselling author behind Radical Candor, suggested earlier in the day, this might be the most toxic workplace phrase. It encourages us to leave our personality and our humanness under the desk, with our other personal belongings.
But at home, this isn’t an option.
“We need to figure out how to shift cultures to include empathy, even if an organization’s culture doesn’t necessarily have empathy yet. Now seems to be a catalyst moment, where we need to intentionally do this,” says Claude.
But this starts with knowing what exactly empathy is.
Empathy: The Main Event
According to Michael Ventura, founder of Sub Rosa and Training With Empathy speaker, “empathy is perspective taking, or the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their point of view.”
It is not compassion, sympathy, or being nice – although these are often side effects. And it is not something you are either born with or not. Empathy is a trainable skill, one which managers must invest in if they are to become better leaders, innovators, and collaborators.
For many of us, empathy is a word that we conceptually understand, but are unable to define in actionable ways. Because of this, we fail to identify when we are or are not empathetic, and why that is, or is not.
As the day continued, trying to define how exactly someone can train to be more empathetic, 3 words continuously circulated each of the conversations. Together, they seemed to become synonymous with empathy: transparency, authenticity, and vulnerability.
However, these are words that many of us understand fully. Ones that not only do we know when we embody them, but we can feel nesting in our stomachs when we do not.
But the question for leaders becomes: how can we empower our people to be transparent, authentic, and vulnerable, so we can infuse empathy into our organization?
Infusing Empathy into our New Normal
So many of us tuck ourselves away in corners of our homes to take calls from work now. We claim that it’s quiet, or where we can focus better. But I think that it really stems from, as Claude puts it, “not wanting to let real life in.”
But with everyone working from home – not just our coworkers, our families as well – this approach is frustrating and unsustainable.
So, according to some of today’s top people leaders, here is how you can encourage your team members out of these corners and normalize this experience:
When going through change, planned or unexpected, you need to talk about it. A study conducted in 1997 proved that individuals who repress their emotions compromise their body’s immune system and mental health, making them more susceptible to illness.
In times like today, when change is constant, managers must encourage transparency on how their people are handling this change. This is the only way that they can provide proper support.
Becky Karsh, Head of People Development (US and Canada) at Uber and Training With Empathy speaker, explains why Uber was able to endure so much change so quickly. They had equipped their organization with a tight framework to navigate these transitions.
Adapted from the Kubler-Ross Model (known as the 5-Stages of Grief), Uber created its own 4-stage change curve to standardize and better facilitate communication throughout the transition. The stages, in order, are as follows:
- Denial (“This is not happening.”)
- Resistance (“I don’t want to deal with this.”)
- Acceptance (“Okay – this is happening.”)
- Commitment (“I want to be part of the solution.”)
Although everyone might be going through the same situation, Becky reminds us that they will not all have the same experience.
“Everyone on the team is going to deal with it on a slightly different timeline,” explains Becky. “So, this framework is not a blanket approach.”
But when you do identify where each person is regarding the change, you need to provide them the individualized support they need at that moment, ranging from 1:1s to group listening sessions. If you are unsure about what they need, ask directly.
Bring Your Authentic Self
Before the event ended, Claude resurfaced a question that Amy Posey, co-author behind Wild Success and Training With Empathy speaker, posed earlier in the day. Why don’t we show our true selves in the workplace?
The EY Belong Barometer indicates that when people feel like they can be themselves at work, they are 3.5 times more likely to be productive, motivated, and engaged. Yet, 40% of people do not feel that they can be themselves in their workplace.
According to Amy, we understand that there is a professional formula (the consequences of “be professional”), which we are expected to follow. This formula dictates how we operate with one another, causing us to avoid diversity and differences rather than embrace them.
Basing her research on her background in neuroscience, Amy suggests that the key to breaking this formula is metacognition (or, to be aware and actively seek to understand how you think).
Before you walk into any situation:
- Identify 3 words that describe how you want to be perceived.
- Determine in one word how you want to make the other people involved feel.
- Plan actionable steps you will take to accomplish the emotion in step 2 while still being who you want to be in step 1.
- Whatever you decide in step 3, go into the situation, and make it happen.
Be Vulnerable First
With a change like this, many of us know to ask questions, such as how are you, really? But very few of us actually get honest answers. In the past, we have accepted answers like “I am fine.” And now, we are suddenly demanding an unprecedented level of vulnerability, levels which many employees are uncomfortable showing in the workplace.
“As a leader, you have to show up if you expect others to do the same,” says Claude. Meaning that you can’t ask, let alone expect, someone to be vulnerable if you are closed off. This is one of the biggest mistakes leaders make.
So, how can you be vulnerable in such a way that others start to reciprocate? Go first!
Every day around lunchtime, Claude hosts “12-at-12s” (12 people meeting around 12 pm). These are 20-minute check-ins that have nothing to do with work in the middle of the workday. Consider them like virtual watercooler chats, where you foster a non-judgemental environment about what’s going on and how people are feeling.
Claude starts these check-ins, telling her people honestly how she is doing, before asking them to do the same. By going first, she builds trust and alleviates the stress that usually restricts these conversations.
“The agenda for the 12-at-12s is to hear if people aren’t doing well and what’s troubling them,” says Claude.
So much of the conversations today are about being there for people and helping them navigate uncertainty. But this cannot happen if you don’t know what is happening with them.
These conversations, like those started at Training With Empathy, are ongoing. While the event has provided a framework for empathy, it is our responsibility to infuse it into our organizations.