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Five classic signs your training lacks empathy

Stepping into someone else’s shoes to see things from their perspective can have maximum impact in both personal and professional situations. We have discussed empathetic learning design, and how to teach empathy, but how do you know if your learning initiatives need an empathy makeover? Below are some signs your training lacks empathy. If you’re noticing these, you may be in need of an empathetic learning approach to take your organization to the next level.

1. Your actual learner population isn’t reflected in the course visuals. 

If your staff comprises more than one gender, culture, or background, yet all of the visuals represent a single category, you may need to change things up. Corporate training frequently makes heavy use of stock photos, which isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s when those images lack diversity that the whole program can come across as generic and not applicable to individual learners. Your course visuals should represent the learner population in all its diversity. If they don’t, learners will have a harder time picturing themselves in the scenarios, and may even feel excluded and undervalued. 

Ideas for representing your learners in course visuals

There are a few ways to take a more inclusive approach with your visuals. First, if you’re going to use stock photos, choose images that represent the learner population. Sites like iStock and Shutterstock have come a long way in offering photos of people in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Even royalty-free stock photo sites offer cultural diversity that has come a long way over the past few years. Alternatively, consider using photos of actual employees in your company. Although it’ll require more effort to shoot or collect photos, the payoff of learners seeing themselves represented will make the work worthwhile.

Another work-around is to avoid using photorealistic visuals at all. There are many other visual art styles that can be effective without looking cartoonish. Sometimes it can be an effective design technique to help learners step away from interpersonal situations by representing them in an entirely different way. Even colors, animals, and textures can add visual interest while side-stepping the need for photos of people. Alternate images can also help learners through situations that have no clear answer by eliminating the bias that many images with humans can represent.

2. Difficult interpersonal situations are treated as having clear-cut answers.

When conducting training that involves challenging situations between people or teams, evaluate whether clear-cut answers are truly representative of the real-world situation. In most cases, navigating situations that require emotional intelligence can’t be boiled down to right vs. wrong. The gray area is what leads learners into thoughtful conversations, discussions of ideas, feelings, and perspectives. If you remove the gray area and limit learners to a right or wrong answer, you will have missed the opportunity to develop empathy. 

How to embrace the gray in learning simulations

It is possible to design training that encourages exploration of topics without a hard right or wrong answer. Traditionally these types of initiatives took place in classroom workshops, or may have required a high-end gamified scenario. New learning modalities adapted to the hybrid workforce are enabling companies to provide safe environments for teams to grapple with complex problems. That need is exactly what led to the development of our ExperienceBUILDER platform. In brief, we create space for learners to assess non-absolute questions by creating multiple scoring parameters for each decision. The real magic happens as teams interact to solve these problems together, competing against other teams using metrics that reflect real-world constraints.

3. You aren’t using accessible design principles.

Organizations need to understand accessible design principles, not only for their customers’ needs but also for their employees. Just like your customers, learners also need to have content that is accessible. If you’re avoiding these design principles for your learners, you could be completely excluding certain individuals or making it harder for them to learn. 

Having empathy toward learners means ensuring that everyone is equally included, regardless of any disabilities. Imagine if you were color blind, and your training was designed in colors that make it impossible for you to see. Chances are you would feel discouraged and would struggle to fully immerse yourself in the learning. Meeting learners where they are increases buy-in, leading to higher adoption and enhanced learning rates.

How to design online training with accessibility in mind

This is a huge topic of ongoing importance for all of us, and too much to address here in a brief blog post. There are many resources online that can help you navigate the basics of accessible design. Two we recommend are Sheryl Burgstahler’s 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course and 10 Tips for Creating Accessible Course Content from Iowa State. To continue to exercise empathy in this area, evaluate the needs of the people in your learning audience. Are there specific concerns or needs that require more than the most basic accommodations? To get started exploring this area of the workforce, talk with your partners in HR.

4. People aren’t given adequate support to grapple with complex problems and implement changes back on the job

If you’ve launched a training program and expect to see results on day one, you may want to reevaluate your expectations. In order to help learners make improvements and implement desired change back into their jobs, you must give them grace, encouragement, and provide ongoing support. Learners will then feel comfortable implementing what they have learned where they see fit and when they feel it is right.

Build post-event support right into the training

What this looks like will really depend on the topic of the training itself. For example, many leadership development initiatives are now paired with ongoing coaching and mentorship programs. In other cases, a follow-up training event is appropriate. Considering what learners need after they’ve completed the initial program will go a long way toward adoption and overall impact.

5. You’ve assumed you understand what people need but have missed the mark

This is oftentimes one of the greatest challenges facing a leader. You may feel as though you know what people need, how they feel, or what will help them, but in reality you don’t see the whole picture. Lack of empathy and emotional intelligence can lead to missing the mark in all sorts of scenarios, and it’s particularly important for us to be aware of as learning leaders. We’ve all dealt with the classic challenge of being asked to build training for something that is actually a process or management problem; assuming you know exactly what learners need in a complex situation is the other side of the same coin.

How to overcome bias when assessing training need

There are many ways to get to the root of a need or problem when designing training; what they all boil down to is getting outside of your own perspective (i.e., showing empathy for the learner’s perspective). An empathy map is one helpful tool for working through the questions from the perspective of the learner. We also use a process called the Voice of the Business to bring in disparate perspectives. You may know what the organization needs as a whole, but your learners quite possibly know what is needed at their level better than you. Take the time to ask questions, offer anonymous questionnaires, and practice active listening. 

It’s important to develop empathetic learning practices, and also to help your learners develop empathy as a key skill for emotional intelligence. Nobody overtly tries to create training that lacks empathy, which is why it’s so important to look out for the signs. If you’re guilty of any of the above-mentioned items and unsure of the way forward, reach out to us. We can create a plan customized for your business needs that will help to incorporate empathy into the organization. 

Teaching empathy at work requires an environment of self-discovery

While we are born with a capacity for empathy, developing this soft skill takes time and is influenced by those around us. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, seeing a problem or situation from outside of your own point of view. When we feel empathetic toward someone else’s problem or circumstances, we’re able to be compassionate, which is crucial for developing relationships. Without empathy, relationships will fail to thrive, both personal and professional. A Center for Creative Leadership study found that empathetic leaders are “viewed as better performers in their jobs by their bosses.” 

Teaching empathy at work has become a particularly urgent task for learning leaders across the spectrum of industries. We can do so with direct techniques designed to help learners take a more compassionate approach to interpersonal situations. We also have an opportunity to influence the overall culture by designing empathy into the learning experiences we create.

Can empathy at work be taught effectively?

We’re all familiar with lackluster training experiences that beat learners over the head with orders to embrace diversity and be kind. While these may have marginal success at changing behavior in specific situations, they’re rarely effective at building true empathy between all members of a team because they don’t dig deep into personal biases. While it’s true that old habits die hard and personal change requires deep commitment, it is possible to create a program that builds an overall empathetic mindset in learners. Doing so requires a more nuanced approach that allows people to get deep into complex situations without straightforward solutions.

Empathy at work can be taught effectively if it’s approached in a way that invites robust dialog and enables learners to see past their existing beliefs. We all have biases, which developed over many years via our personal experiences, the media, and the people with whom we surround ourselves. Biases can negatively impact our ability to empathize. The most powerful antidote for bias is to see a situation from someone else’s point of view. Being aware of how others may view situations, actively listening to teammates, and engaging in conversation with people from diverse backgrounds can aid in developing empathy, inclusivity, and understanding in the workplace. In a training simulation, we can create an environment that enables learners to overcome their biases. Because biases are often deeply rooted, an effective training simulation must invite self-discovery, in which learners are provided with a safe environment to uncover and work through their biases (rather than didactic instruction on what they should do).

ExperienceBUILDERTM simulations foster empathy by putting learners into situations where there is no clear right or wrong answer (much like the problems learners are working through daily on the job). In an ExperienceBUILDER simulation, teams collaborate to find a solution that will impact a range of metrics, such as overall productivity, profitability, employee engagement, team health, and progress toward a goal. The team receives real-time feedback as their score meters change, and they must balance business needs with other priorities. Just like real-life situations, that balance is key. Sometimes one meter may go up while others go down. Working together as a team enables all learners to talk through the options, balance the pros and cons, and find a solution that checks as many possible positive boxes with minimal sacrifice. In the process, they can see how biases are affecting overall performance, and perhaps even begin to unravel their own closely held beliefs.

Why is empathy important in the workplace?

Studies support the business value of empathy and emotional intelligence. For example, healthcare professionals who show empathy toward their patients tend to see the patients adhere better to their treatments, thus resulting in better health outcomes. Empathy involves listening, understanding the emotions of another person, and responding accordingly. While many workplaces have long struggled with a lack of empathy, the events of the past two years have shone a spotlight on how critical empathy is to productive collaboration and business success. In a world of shifting work environments, labor shortages, and ever-changing business needs, leaders and contributors at all levels must be able to empathize with their colleagues in order to be successful. 

Training people to be more empathetic is possible with an immersive, discovery-based approach. ExperienceBUILDER simulations can help to guide individuals into meaningful conversations, solve complex interpersonal situations, uncover biases and judgment, and improve inclusion efforts for a diverse workforce. Ready to learn more? Contact us to schedule a consultation.

Empathetic learning design enables relevant and maximally effective training

Individuals want to feel heard and understood, at home, at work, and when learning new skills. When designing training, it is vital to understand learner pain points, past experiences, and motivations. By taking an empathetic approach from the beginning of the instructional design process, you can generate higher adoption rates, encourage thoughtful conversations, and facilitate open communication. 

While it may sound simple in theory, in practice, empathetic learning design isn’t always a straightforward process. It involves meeting all of the needs of your learners—even needs learners have not openly expressed or personally acknowledged. 

Empathetic learning considers the needs of a specific group of learners; the organization’s culture and diversity; and recent challenges. Empathetic designs often take an immersive approach that use stories/scenarios to create opportunities for problem solving with a nuanced treatment of content that demands inclusive discussions.

When dealing with sensitive content, it’s rare to get any learning program completely right without input from your target audience. Ask your learners for their honest thoughts and feedback, and show you value their input by responding accordingly. 

What tools can help with empathetic learning design?

Using an empathy map provides a helpful framework for going beyond learning objectives and delving into the learner’s point of view. Empathy maps have long been in use by user experience designers and can be a powerful tool for helping to understand your learners’ needs. 

The empathy mapping process uses a series of questions to put you in the position of the learner as you are designing training. You begin by identifying who you’re empathizing with and what he or she needs to do. While this part is straightforward for instructional designers because we’re used to defining our audience and stating learning objectives, we don’t often delve into next-level questions that are typically included on an empathy map: 

1. What does the learner see…

  • In the work environment?
  • In the learning experience?
  • When he or she is looking for information or otherwise consuming content?

Take a step back and try to see things as they would.

2. What does the learner say…

  • In work-related interactions with peers and leaders?
  • When communicating with customers?
  • Outside of work?

And perhaps even more enlightening: what doesn’t the learner say? Is there tension in what’s left unsaid? 

3. What does the learner hear…

  • From colleagues and leaders?
  • From customers?
  • In a learning environment?
  • Outside of work?

Are you truly listening to what the individual is saying? If so, are you responding in an empathetic manner? Are you strictly sticking to business regardless of what may be going on?

4. What does the learner do…

  • Within a learning simulation?
  • On the job when faced with a situation like the one you’re simulating?
  • When approaching a difficult decision?

What may be the root cause of the gaps between the learner’s current actions and the desired behavior? Are there reasons for that behavior that may not be immediately obvious?

5. What does the learner think and feel?

This is probably the most difficult component of the empathy map to get right, and simultaneously the easiest to get very wrong. While we may think we understand what our learners are thinking and feeling, the exercise of working through the questions above may reveal otherwise. 

  • Does each individual feel included and valued? 
  • Do they feel something should be changed? 
  • What do they worry about?
  • What do they wish could happen? 

In some cultures, you may not even be able to get learners’ true thoughts by asking outright. Anonymous surveys and opportunities for feedback can offer an opportunity to get to the bottom of hidden thoughts and feelings.

Empathy in the workplace is becoming a top priority for organizations that are looking for ways to retain current employees and attract new talent. When employees feel as though they are seen, understood, and valued, they perform at their best. Demonstrating that you understand them through an immersive learning experience can be transformative. 

Struggling with the foundational work required to create empathetic learning designs?

Our time-tested Voice of the Business process is a proven alternative to traditional needs assessment (and a client favorite). It involves employees in a way that secures their buy-in while getting to the root of what people really need to be successful. You gain insights to help you create an authentic learning experience while integrating empathetic learning design. Contact us to schedule a consultation and learn how we can support you.

Shifting to Hybrid Work: 3 things learners need in a post-covid work environment

Does anyone remember the expression, “Two weeks to slow the spread?” It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when we all thought we’d go back to pre-pandemic life as usual. Over the course of the past 9-12 months, it’s become increasingly obvious that office life is unlikely to ever return to “normal.” Countless companies have set dates for their employees to return, only to push those back as the latest variant emerges or a surge in infections impacts a significant region. Conferences and events have been scheduled, rescheduled, canceled, brought back, and moved online. We’ve all settled in to expecting the unexpected and living with uncertainty while adapting to a hybrid work environment.

Forward-thinking companies have shifted their efforts to building a hybrid work environment that allows the business to be responsive to whatever nature throws our way in the future. What hybrid work looks like will vary from organization to organization, but in most cases it means that individuals and teams will rotate between the office and remote work. Additionally, companies in many industries are increasingly relying on a contingent workforce, rather than traditional employment arrangements. 

Research and experience has shown that the evolutionary path learning has been traveling over the past 20 years will need to accelerate in order to meet the needs of a hybrid workforce. Yes, technology plays an important role, but there are more conceptual issues that will need to be considered. As you build your learning strategy, consider our top three recommendations to address the needs of hybrid learners.

1. Consistency of experience

For the most part, technology issues related to remote and hybrid work have been settled at this point. People have adopted the necessary apps and platforms, upgraded their workstations, and learned new ways of collaborating. Brian Kropp, head of HR at Gartner, recently said that figuring out the way forward with a hybrid work environment isn’t so much an issue of the right tech as it is “ a consistency and evenness-of-experience question.”

The learning industry has struggled to provide a consistent experience between in-person and virtual training for decades. The events of 2020 increased the adoption of virtual learning because it was the only way to continue developing people. As necessity is the mother of invention, companies have found all sorts of ways to make virtual learning work for development projects that were previously relegated to in-person events.

A hybrid work environment, however, throws in a whole new set of challenges. The learning modalities that will prevail in the next year will be those that can offer the same experience to learners located anywhere—in the traditional office, at home, and around the globe.

2. Sensitivity and empathy

While the pandemic escalated mental health issues for countless people, it’s fair to say that many people were dealing with these challenges long before 2020. One outcome of the pandemic is that mental health needs have become part of the public conversation, even in the workplace. Similarly, the work from home environment exposed many details about workers’ personal lives that may not have previously surfaced in the office. Parents and caregivers have been at the forefront of many leaders’ minds, but there are also countless other circumstances that were uncovered as the webcams clicked on at home.

As a result, learning leaders are seeking new ways to provide resources related to emotional intelligence, diversity and inclusion, and other soft skills. Specific interventions in those areas are needed in many organizations, but they should also become an integral part of the overall learning strategy. For a hybrid work environment to succeed, employers simply must continue to accommodate their workers’ personal needs. Recent news headlines have highlighted the damage that can occur in organizations that neglect to be empathetic to their employees. L&D has a huge opportunity to contribute in this area by taking an empathetic approach in the design of every learning intervention.

3. Engagement

The numbers vary, but reports indicate that anywhere from 25%-50% of workers have changed jobs in the past year. We’ve known for a long time that engaged employees are more likely to stick around; what’s quickly changing are the ways we go about keeping people engaged. A hybrid work environment, by nature, is significantly more vulnerable to people slipping through the cracks. Companies have ramped up their efforts to measure engagement consistently, and L&D groups have deployed a slew of interventions designed to help managers combat the factors that lead to disengaged workers.

Investing in employees by developing their skills is a tried-and-true way to increase employee engagement. That said, any initiative must be calibrated to what people really need and deployed via a program that keeps learners engaged enough to actually learn something. Sadly, most learning designed for virtual delivery doesn’t come close to the caliber of pre-pandemic events that were held in person. Those L&D groups that will continue to succeed in moving the needle on employee engagement will have to find ways to deploy learning that engages learners in the hybrid workplace—providing that consistent experience mentioned in item one.

Learning leaders may have a lot on their shoulders, but it’s an exciting time for our profession. We can make significant contributions to the success of a hybrid work environment by designing learning that supports employees in their areas of need. Our team has extensive experience doing just that. Contact us to schedule a new year strategy session.

What is team-based self-discovery learning?

As we continue to navigate the new normal, there’s been no shortage of change initiatives from leaders who recognize a need to make massive shifts in the way their organizations do business. Some of these, such as increased digitization, are tactical projects with well-defined outcomes. Others, such as managing a remote workforce or cultivating a leadership pipeline, are more nebulous and require ongoing efforts. These initiatives have high stakes and complex requirements. The long-term fate of the organization rests on their success; everyone will have to pull together. Team-based self-discovery learning is a powerful tool for a high-stakes change initiative, particularly when the desired end state isn’t so much a destination as it is an ongoing journey.

What does team-based self-discovery learning mean?

To get started, let’s break down the phrase: team-based self-discovery learning. In team-based learning, participants typically work together to solve problems, share stories, identify best practices, and uncover common failure points. While traditionally these experiences occurred in a classroom setting, learning tech has evolved to enable effective team-based learning regardless of whether learners are co-located or remote. Even globally dispersed teams can now benefit from team-based learning initiatives, coming together with audio and video for learning events.

Self-discovery learning is a concept that has been around for a long time and essentially rests on the premise that people are more likely to learn when they figure something out for themselves, as opposed to being taught or told. While highly effective, self-discovery learning requires more nuanced instructional design. The learner must have parameters that enable free thinking and exploration, but also flow toward a desired objective or conclusion.

When you put them together, they can sound like an oxymoron: self-discovery in a team setting? However, it can be done, and leading organizations are already doing it. Team-based self-discovery learning puts a team into a situation where they must work together to discover a solution. Escape rooms are a great example—they require a group of people to collaborate; one person simply can’t solve the escape room puzzle alone. Teams must come up with their own process for solving the puzzle and getting out of the room in time.

Team-based self-discovery learning is:

  • Learner-driven. Rather than a one-way flow of content from trainer to trainee, learners explore concepts themselves. 
  • Engaging. Discovery requires learners to be fully engaged; if they aren’t, they’ll be unable to make much progress.
  • Compatible with your culture. That’s one of the key benefits of self-discovery learning—it doesn’t come with strict parameters. Think of it like a sandbox environment, into which you can bring your unique culture, baggage, and aspirations for the future.
  • An agent for change. We all know we’re more willing to make changes when we’re committed to them. How do you build that commitment? Foster an environment where learners come up with the solution (i.e., change) on their own.

Team-based self-discovery learning isn’t:

  • Read-click. Read-click. Read-click. Keep that Next button unlocked!
  • Linear. Each individual will experience the learning in a unique way, via thoughtful design that enables them to reach the desired end point.
  • Didactic. While some content may lend itself to lengthy, formal presentation, most change initiatives don’t fall into that category.
  • A solo experience. In fact, what makes it so powerful is the team element. As learners are working through key concepts, they’re also building relationships with their colleagues.

How do you create team-based self-discovery learning experiences?

There are many approaches to deploying team-based self-discovery learning; doing it well requires a thorough understanding of the requirements and desired outcomes. Our ExperienceBUILDERTM platform drives team-based self-discovery learning that’s equally effective for teams in the physical workplace as for those dispersed across the globe. Learners are quickly pulled into a scenario in which they must engage in deep discussions to move forward. The answers are unclear; as in real-life scenarios, these simulations offer multiple paths forward. A back-end scoring system with targeted feedback enables competition between teams, furthering their investment in the overall outcome.

Best of all, people are connecting with each other in real time, talking through the same types of issues they’re struggling with on the job, and finding their own path. Although all teams may be working through the same scenarios, each group will have unique discussions. Because it’s a shared experience, the team can take its solutions right back into their work.

Would you like to learn more about how team-based self-discovery learning can support your high-stakes change initiative? Contact us to schedule a consultation.