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.

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