Empathy: The Key to Building a Positive Workplace

There has always been a discussion from the past whether inviting emotions to the workplace is a good idea. But now, there is no room for such thoughts, and it is evident that being empathetic and compassionate is a key to building a great work environment.

Rishii Dhand, a Product Management leader at Google, is an ardent believer that empathy is the secret to building a positive workplace. Rishii, in this article, shares with us some key actionable insights on how to implement empathy and compassion in the workplace.

Why is empathy important at the workplace?

Pursuing a mission, and focusing on customers, is not enough to build a successful business. For a company to succeed, all the functions and teams should work in alignment to achieve the goals. Even as a solopreneur, one needs to work with customers to keep that business up and running. So, there is no word as alone in the modern business environment.

Saying that the reality of the workplace is teams and people being interconnected with one another to deliver the desired outputs.

But every person in the team has different aspirations, way of approaching work, and importantly, the emotions each individual brings to the workplace is different. And all these factors keep changing.

Here, the toughest part is connecting with others’ challenges and motivations and understanding where the other person is coming from.

For example, say, the Product manager wants a feature to be rolled out next week. But the Engineer says that it is complex, and it is difficult to get it done quickly. What should the product manager do in this situation? He can either turn deaf ears and ask him to finish it or try to understand where he is coming from. In that case, the ideal way to solve this problem is to help the Engineer with more hands to finish the task in a specific time. But for him to do that, he should put himself in the Engineer’s shoes.

This is what empathy is all about. It is about understanding people from their vantage point and taking an informed decision, rather than taking a point of view devoid of another person’s perspective.

Empathy is the bridge between people and teams at a workplace. It is impossible to connect without that bridge, and it’s a prerequisite for success.

Operationalizing empathy at the workplace

Though we always talk about the importance of empathetic work culture, we somehow miss out on operationalizing it and making it easy for people to follow. So here’s a three-step practice that’ll help you kick-start your journey towards a positive workplace.

The first step is to become aware of the “what.” What is empathy, and why is it important. Understanding this will put you in the right direction in your journey towards a work culture that everyone wants to be a part of.

Once you know what empathy is and why it is essential, you need to practice listening. Not just being silent when the other person is talking, but also mindful listening of what the other person is trying to convey. I conducted an interesting session with teams, where I put them in pairs. One person has to talk about a topic, say, for example, the challenges at the workplace. The other person has to actively listen and repeat what he just said.

As you keep practicing this activity now and then, everyone will naturally develop listening habits and understand other people’s perspectives.

Summarizing

We’ve always had this habit of summarizing the essence and action items by the end of meetings. Instead of discussing only that, a person can summarize everyone’s key points at the end or after the meeting. By doing this, everyone feels heard, and it is a great way to sow the seeds to building an empathetic workplace.

The role of empathy in building products

Focusing on the customers makes a company more resilient. Understanding their pain points and being empathetic is the first step to building a product that satisfies your users. And that is how they turn to be your ambassadors.

That is why the user pain point is the first section when writing a PRD. An empathetic product manager doesn’t just try to understand their pain points but tries to get a feeling of what they actually go through. So, they actually go and experience the flow.

Say I am building a product for support teams, I would go and sit on support calls and spend time with them. Similarly, a PM building a product for school kids should spend time with the kids and the parents to understand their problem. This is how you can make sure you build products that users love.

The role of empathy in effective leadership

Oprah Winfrey once said that leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.

A leader is the one who shows the path to their team. Without the team, there is no leadership. So, a leader should understand the underlying emotions and aspirations of the team to make the right decision. Unless and until he connects with the team, it will be difficult for him to motivate them and guide them in the right direction. If the team is not aligned with the leader’s direction and if the leader is not aware of that, the project is doomed to failure. And if half the team is looking in the other direction, then it’s like going to battle with half the troops.

Best examples of empathetic workplace

Google is an excellent example of a workplace with a great culture. This is the place where a lot of products are built. And all these products are built after extensive user study. So investing a lot in user study shows the keenness to go deeper in understanding the challenges the users are going through, which in itself is an example of operationalizing empathy.

Another good example is Microsoft. Satya Nadella often speaks about empathy and listening and how it connects to leadership. Microsoft’s interesting turnaround in the past years is mainly because of Satya’s leadership and emphasis on a culture built on empathy.

No one should feel hard trying to fit in the culture of the company they are working for. In a nutshell, trying to put yourself in another person’s shoes irrespective of whether you are an employee or the CEO is the secret potion to building a positive workplace that everyone wants to be a part of and adds value to its success. Let today be the day you start empathizing with people, and trust me, it will take you places.

Originally published at https://zeda.io on February 18, 2022.

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Zeda.io aims to make Product Management and Development Simpler & Smarter. We write about Product Management, Product Design, Product Development, and startups.