Emotional Intelligence- Empathy in Professional life

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It was somewhere in 2002-03 self and one of my colleagues ( a member of my sales team) had gone for an important customer presentation in Mumbai. The meeting was scheduled at 10.30 AM and got completed by 12.00noon. I had some other work in the same area to meet another customer and I told my colleague to carry on with his calls. He said he needs to go back to the office urgently as he has to work on an important tender which was due the following day. So, we parted ways. It so happened that, I completed my second meeting in Worli (South Mumbai) and was back in my office in Chembur by around 1.15 PM only to see that my colleague had still not arrived in the office. I jumped to the conclusion that he was just wasting time or may have gone for some job interview. He came back to the office only by 1.45 PM or so. The moment he arrived in the office, I called him to my cabin and fired him left, right and center without hearing his side of the story. I accused him of wasting precious man-hours and also asked him where he had gone for the job interview.

Only after some time I came to know from some other colleague that this fellow had gone to the nearby doctor since he started feeling a bit uneasy after our joint call, took a bus to the nearest railway station(for his grade he was not allowed cab/auto-rickshaw), took a local train reached the station of our office, had his lunch in a restaurant (since he didn’t get his tiffin that day) and then reached the office. Whereas I took a cab from my second appointment which was a courtesy visit and the meeting lasted for just 10mins, took a cab and reached the office very fast.

My judgemental and prejudicial tendencies didn’t allow me to think from my colleague’s perspective. I had failed miserably to understand what he could have gone through or didn’t even bother to ask him before getting mad at him. I was totally consumed by my self-centered and self-absorbed reactions which failed me to behave in such an inhuman and disconnected manner, totally devoid of self-awareness. Such empathy deprived behaviors from the bosses are one of the reasons why employees leave organizations. Was I happy after getting wild at my colleague? Not the least. My anger and the physiological changes that came with it like fast breathing, sweating, and clenching of fists did not allow me to concentrate on my work and dropped my productivity drastically, not to mention the guilt ride that I went through after getting to know that he was not well and had visited a doctor.

This incident, however, changed the way I look at people to a certain extent. I was more self-aware of my emotions and hence my behavior with others. I was able to place myself better in front of them and my experience with handling people and going through some reverses in my professional life taught me a lot of lessons when it came to managing people, an uncompromisable skill required if one has to be successful in today’s corporate environment. While I am still WIP (work in progress) as far as empathy and EI are concerned would like to share some of my learnings through experiences and self-reflection.

Empathy in the workplace is as important as in our personal lives. It is the key to your success in career and a driver which will decide how high you will reach in your profession. As a leader/manager one of the very important abilities to have is to understand the non-verbal cues which can be totally contradictory to spoken words, giving you an incite of what is going on in your department/organization.

When the leader puts himself in his employees’/colleagues’ shoes, there is a feeling of belonging for the boss and the organization.

Some of the good habits towards fostering empathy are:

  • Saying thank you and sorry wherever required and is appropriate without making an ego issue.
  • Asking for the opinions and views of your team members, even if they are juniors and newly joined. Encouraging them to voice their perspectives.
  • Never being critical or criticizing any team member
  • Acknowledge team member’s strengths and accept their weaknesses.
  • Communicate with your team in clear terms as to what is expected of them and by when.
  • Supporting and appreciating things that are done well

To be more empathetic you need to be more creative:

  • As a leader, your employees/team members look up to you and your behaviors can have a great impact on them. Realize the influence you can have on others due to your natural tendencies and reactions.
  • After every success/milestone achieved or project completed by your team or your department/organization, be willing to see who were the major contributors to this success. Do you appreciate/felicitate them in front of everybody?
  • Think of the positive points that came out after each of the tasks that were completed by the team.

If you are disconnected from your own feelings, you may not be able to understand empathy. One can empathize with others only when they are attuned to them. When problems arise, people with empathy skills are better equipped to get the required advice and help from colleagues and hence are more successful in their careers. Those leaders/managers who can connect with and read their colleagues and understand their needs, ask for/ready to give help, tend to be more successful. In today’s corporate and changing world, it is the team rather than an individual which is the basic work unit. When working in a team and to get the best out of it, as a leader or even as just a team member you require to have a higher degree of empathy. Most companies recognize the value of this skill as cost-effective and resulting in less attrition rate and hence it pays to have empathy in the organization.

How can I get more empathetic?

Now, let’s understand some of the ways through which we can improve on our empathy levels in your office:

  1. Listening: This is the first and the very basic skill we need to have to be more empathetic. However, this may not be natural or inborn nor it is easy to acquire. It requires a lot of practice, patience, self-awareness, and self-control to develop listening. Before we understand what listening is all about, we need to find out some myths about listening, which are as follows:
  2. Not talking while the other person is speaking
  3. Letting the other person know that you are listening by nodding your head or making facial expression or verbal sounds such as Humm- uhh
  4. Being able to repeat what was said by the other person or being able to paraphrase what the other person had said. E.g. “So, as I understand what you mean to say is…..”

Recent studies have found out that listening is much more than the above points. Some of these pointers are:

  • Best listeners are the ones who periodically ask questions that encourage better understanding and insight. Sitting there and just nodding head does not provide evidence to the speaker that another person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker that the listener has not only heard but that they have understood enough and are asking for additional information.
  • Good listening involves a dialogue between both the parties and the exchange of feedback in both the directions. Poor listeners have that irresistible urge to talk when there is a small pause from the speaker and are just waiting to give their response. Good listeners may not agree to all that is said by the other person and may sometimes challenge also however, the listener is trying to help rather than trying to win an argument.
  • Good listening is like a trampoline for a child: it gives energy, bounce, acceleration, height, and amplification to your ideas and clarity of thinking rather than just acting like a sponge that absorbs what the other person is saying.
  • Practice Compassion: Actually, the next step for empathy is compassion. However, if you can replace frustration, anger (a natural response) and reprimanding an employee who has committed a mistake, with compassion their productivity can be improved. If you treat your employees with warmth and develop an environment that breeds positivity, it will have a greater say in employee’s loyalty and belonging to your company than his/her paycheque. All employees look up to their leaders and are moved/touched by their kindness and compassion.

Instead, if you respond with anger or frustration, it erodes loyalty. If you treat the employee too harshly, your reaction will make you have the feeling of guilt and next time that employee may not work beyond the call of the duty, which may hurt you as some loyalty is lost. You are developing an invisible wall between you and him/her and this hampers their creativity and productivity.

Being compassionate results in happier employee’s and more productivity

So, how can you be more compassionate to your employee when he/she makes a serious mistake:

  • Slow down: There will always be an urge to react immediately out of anger and frustration. Take some time to reflect and step back to control your emotional reactions, resulting in you being more thoughtful responses.
  • Put yourself in the employee’s shoes:  Thinking from the employee’s point of view will give you a perspective of what he might be going through. Maybe it will also remind you, that ‘when you were at his/her level/post you did the same mistake and your boss was also mad at you and you did feel very bad about it’.  This will help you to overcome your frustration and will stop you from degrading the poor fellow who is already feeling guilty for the mistake he/she has committed. You will also have the presence of mind to help him/her to save their face. You will gain more loyalty and be their hero for life.

It is very easy for the leaders as they gain more power by virtue of their positions, to lose their natural ability of empathy. It requires great self-awareness to be able to have an employee’s perspective.

  • Forgive: Having a grudge against an employee for all the mistakes he/she commits, is bad for your health (your BP and heart rate goes up), increases stress and disruptive emotions. On the other hand, forgiveness strengthens your relationship with your employees by promoting loyalty and develops a sense of belonging for the organization.

When trust, loyalty, and creativity are high and stress is low employees are happier and more productive. Attrition rates and absenteeism are lower. Compassionate management leads to improvements in customer service and client satisfaction.

However, being compassionate is not letting them off the hook. But by choosing a compassionate response they know they have made a mistake and that they have learned a lesson. They also want to improve because you have been kind to them.

Would like to end today’s blog with these beautiful lines:

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”Henry David Thoreau

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