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How to Practice Empathy in the Virtual World of Work

November 12, 2020 Leadership
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter

In Steven Spielberg's blockbuster movie "Jurassic Park," mathematician Ian Malcolm, memorably played by actor Jeff Goldblum, offered an observation about the determination and power of nature: “Life finds a way.”

Granted, a virus differs from a dinosaur in countless ways but the idea that organisms adapt when faced with challenges holds true. As a result of COVID-19, we humans have been reminded how vulnerable we are and that our actions can have consequences on a global scale.

From the onset of the pandemic, I’ve been talking with friends and colleagues about what this shared experience might teach us about our humanity. If you know a cancer survivor, you’ve probably heard them speak about having greater clarity about life as a result of their profound struggle. While there may have been subtle signals along the way that their life needed adjustment, it took a significant event to awaken them to the change that was actually needed. At a macro level, my hope is the pandemic will do the same for our species.

We’ve been moving faster and faster through each day with less and less connection to those around us. It’s not news that over the last dozen years we’ve been overwhelmed by accelerating technology. As screen interaction time has increased, we’ve seen trust erode, anxiety rise and empathy decline.

In the context of work, we’ve seen cracks emerging in the corporate armor for a while. The big reset has made its way into the agendas of the World Economic Forum as well as Business Roundtable. Topics such as stakeholder value, economic equality, sustainability, health care access, social justice, climate change and systemic racism are now on the C-suite agenda.

Tips for Practicing Empathy at Work

There's another tsunami gaining energy in the workforce. Across all generations, employees are seeking purpose, fulfillment and meaning — the feeling of being profoundly connected to one another and to something bigger than themselves. Social unrest and the tension in society at large are moving from the community into the enterprises where we work.

As a citizen of Georgia, I am reminded of the words of civil rights activist and former U.S. Representative John Lewis. He encouraged us all to make “good trouble” to help our nation live to its fullest and most inclusive potential.

While this article is not explicitly about diversity and inclusion, it’s virtually impossible to behave in an inclusive way without understanding (and demonstrating) the need for empathy. Sympathy and empathy are related but not the same. Sympathy allows us to appreciate someone else’s feelings, most typically in a sad or even mournful situation. However, empathy goes further. When you experience empathy for another individual, you identify with their emotions and have an understanding of how it must feel to be that person or to experience their circumstances.

Empathy is the proverbial two-sided coin, in that others can have it for you or you can have it for others. Empathy is manifested through behaviors that others recognize as being genuine, personal and specific to the situation. In today’s virtual work environment, there are many dynamics at play, making each day unique and somewhat unpredictable. On any given day, the need to demonstrate empathy with our colleagues could be just around the corner.

This need to connect with others will continue to accelerate. With that in mind, here are practical tips to foster greater empathy:

Tip No. 1: Be Purposeful With Time

Those of us who worked virtually (pre-pandemic) will attest to the importance of planning a healthy day. Rolling from one video conference to the next, completely task-focused and with limited breaks is a great formula for burnout. Before we know it, the day has passed us by. As it relates to empathy, this means purposefully making time to connect with others on a personal level.

Turns out small talk isn’t such a small thing after all. Making the time to inquire about someone else’s well being, life events, their family or interests during stable times sets the stage for conversations for when life throws us a curve ball. Building the foundation of psychological safety with colleagues — the secure feeling that interpersonal interactions are free of judgment — makes it easier for others to openly engage with us in uncertain times. (By the way, for those who feel they are too busy for non-task-oriented conversations, where exactly are you rushing to anyway in the midst of a pandemic?)

Tip No. 2: Give Before You Receive

Receiving empathy is certainly uplifting but offering empathy is rewarding. Our brains release dopamine when we act in prosocial ways with others, so empathetic actions for others literally feels good. When we solicit someone else’s perspectives, it sets the stage for us to connect on a lasting level. It requires that we ask about their experiences, not just share our own, tempting though that may be. It requires we listen with the intent of appreciating their experience and try to envision ourselves in that same situation — not necessarily trying to solve it, but to understand it. It’s partly about giving our time to another person but it’s also about the sincere effort to feel what they are feeling.

Start by seeking to understand the experiences behind their emotions. A question such as “What has your experience been?” is better than the question “Why do you feel that way?” Hearing the details behind the experience is what enables us to imagine ourselves in their situation, which is a foundational step for empathy. It also avoids putting the other person on defense. They don't have to justify their emotions to someone else.

 
Jamil Zaki, Ph.D. Associate Professor Department of Psychology Stanford University

Jamil Zaki, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of "The War for Kindness":

"Disasters are a collision point for two stories about humanity. The first, found in books like 'Lord of the Flies,' holds that when the rules go away, we revert to our selfish, brutish 'true' nature. The second, from actual historical records, demonstrates the opposite. When catastrophe strikes, people care for and help one another. Disasters are social magnets.

An irony of the COVID pandemic is that we must now stay apart just when we most need one another. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to connect, at work and beyond. A key is to make formal time for informal community. This can mean setting aside the first 10 minutes of team meetings to check in, or something more involved like employee support programs and affinity groups, in which people are given time, and resources to help one another.

In thriving workplaces, empathy flows naturally across teams and people. It still can now, but leaders must be intentional about giving it space to do so. "

Tip No. 3: Control Your Technology, Not the Other Way Around

It’s widely recognized that one of the reasons we are more detached socially is our over-engagement with devices and technology. But let’s not make the mistake of blaming the technology — we own this. It’s on us. Thank goodness technology is here, particularly during this pandemic. Without it, we would be even more isolated, lacking access to commercial and health care services, as well as friends and family. When in virtual work environments, reflect on the following questions.

When on camera, are we:

  • Smiling and making eye contact?
  • Sharing our feelings to encourage others to do the same?
  • Prompting others to interact with us?

When off camera, are we:

  • Paying as much attention as when we’re on camera?
  • Multitasking because no one can see us?
  • Interacting less with others?

Tip No. 4: Make Time for Virtual Water Cooler Conversations

Given we’re not having nearly as many impromptu conversations, schedule a few “water cooler” conversations every week. With new connections, use the mental construct that virtual conversations are just the beginning of a longer term friendship. The most authentic time to expand our networks is when we’re not in need of help or a favor. Informal, personal conversations can be uplifting and mutually empathetic, and are as simple as:

  • Reconnecting with someone who positively impacted your career.
  • Reaching out to someone whose work you admire.
  • Offering onboarding support to someone new to the organization.

If there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s that empathy and kindness are the two new superpowers. We are learning to live with more ambiguity than ever before, and we have come to expect the unexpected. How organizations treat their employees during the pandemic will create powerful impressions that will last a lifetime and shape careers for many years to come.

On an interpersonal level, how we react to the ebbs and flows of a colleague’s life sends a clear signal about how empathetic each of us really is. Our willingness to listen with an open mind and a caring heart is what others will remember. COVID-19 has made it possible for us to reimagine our humanity by actively choosing empathy and kindness.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is managing director, People Advisory Services at EY. She is both a seasoned corporate executive and an experienced human capital consultant.

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