14 minute read

Empathy in the Workplace

Lakshmi: Why do we talk about empathy? Is it relevant to us? What does it mean to us? Everyone has a different interpretation of what empathy brings to their organisation. Does it translate to business success? Studies have proved that the benefits translate to the profits of the company. Now, let’s hear from our distinguished panellists.

Oscar: I'm very proud to work for the Dutch multinational company AkzoNobel. You will know it in India from the brand ‘Dulux,’ that has very strong values of integrity, sustainability and safety. When a black swan event like the Covid Pandemic hits us, then that's a moment of truth to see if those values that we have so proudly enshrined are truly our north star, in guiding our decisions and behaviours. As a coating company, we have to show our true colours as the pressure is stronger than ever before. We have to make sure that the ship doesn't sink you and that you have enough cash and credit to survive this pandemic.

We wanted to put our people and their safety first. We started to update our contingency plans at the end of last year and did scenario planning. We distinguished three groups and developed a response to take care of each of them. We called it the three rings of protection.

It covered:

• Individuals and their families. To allay their fears, we created awareness programs. We distributed PPE and provided medical support to make sure that they could protect themselves as much as possible against the virus and protect their loved ones.

• The team members at the sites and offices.

• The company, our customers and community.

We provided food for people outside in the communities. The people are the foundation and fabric on which our ecosystem is built. So taking take care of them makes perfect business sense.

We introduced another initiative called the virtual cup of coffee. We consciously set time aside to talk with our team members to know about their anxieties. Business talk was forbidden in this. We could hear many heart-breaking stories. We started to empathise and build trust with each other. I like the concept of psychological safety that Harvard Professor Edmondson introduced.

We observed that people go through three phases: a phase of fear in which empathy is an essential element to address people’s concerns; in the second level, they go through a phase of learning where they reflect on the situation, and in the third level, they move into a zone of growth.

We teamed up with Skillsoft, a leading e-­learning platform, and within three months, we had 20,000 interactions. We communicated through webcast and newsletters and addressed the anxiety of our people. To quote a Chinese proverb, in times of crisis like this, we need a cool hat, a warm heart and dirty hands. Warm heart is essential to show empathy.

Lakshmi: Thank you Oscar. You have developed your career spanning 30 plus years in one company. How can a company keep their employees engaged and staying with them longer?

Oscar: I am an officer of the Air Force. I literally wanted to spread my wings as I came out of military service. I was fortunate to be recruited by a MNC that provided me a good platform and I am blessed with a wife and children who have always supported me in my ambition. I was given the chance to develop myself to go to different disciplines—from technical to marketing, sales, logistics and now general management. The company took a leap of faith, sending me to different companies, countries and cultures. That created a lot of trust and respect. Even when I had a bout of cancer, the company supported me throughout and through the ups and downs of my personal and professional life. Obviously, there was a lot of empathy and communication involved in that. It created a lot of loyalty from my side.

Lakshmi: I've been with Oracle for 15 years, the longest that I've been with any company and it goes back to balancing career growth and relationship building, especially in tough times. I went through a rough patch with my mother’s health. She fell down, broke her back and had spine and brain surgery. I just dropped everything and left for a month. My boss and my entire team supported me. Venky, talking of empathy in the workplace, what are your initial thoughts from your TCS experience?

Venkateswaran: It is all about listening and making a connection with another person at a deeper level. It's a way of getting into that person's shoes and skin to feel how that person is feeling.

Lack of empathy is very easy to see. Try losing your bag after a transcontinental flight and think how you get treated sometimes. That will tell you how not to treat someone. As customers, when we encounter a service provider, often we don't get empathy from them. It is a transactional approach.

That empathy is important in business is a no ­brainer. In a HR process, we conduct a survey to find out how people feel. That becomes process oriented. Organisational culture must drive empathy. It is important how leadership creates a culture where people feel that empathy. The product or service that we offer must bake in that empathy and it is a sort of hygiene factor. That means empathy alone is not enough. On top of that, a layer is required and this is about the cultural angle.

Lakshmi: Adam, can you share with us how you set the tone in your company in terms of culture and how you drive being an empathetic leader?

Adam: Being in the technology space where employees have lots of choices and recruiters are eyeing to pick our employees all the time, empathy is extremely important. The name of my company—Hylaine—is a combination of the names of my two daughters. So when I show up at the office, the name on the door reminds me that this is a family and that we want to create a family feel. We have always been very intentional with that culture.

We make sure that we value employees in our organisation not only for what they bring to the company but also who they are as persons. The luxury of being in a smaller company is that we are very close to every employee. We make sure that each employee can connect with someone in leadership, some of their peers and somebody on a different team. We have seen many people become close friends in this environment.

The pandemic has really challenged us in different ways. I am really thankful that we had built a foundation around empathy prior to the pandemic, because it has pushed and stressed everybody differently from a personal and professional perspective. We make sure that we check in on people’s mental health. The elections here in the US too have added to people’s anxiety.

Lakshmi: How do you balance what you need as a company to be successful versus what the employee is looking for and what is it that they want out of their life and career?

Adam: We have put in place the right culture and it starts with the leadership team. When we draw the organisational chart, we put our leadership team basically as a support platform underneath our team. I want our leaders supporting our people for success. We ensure this, right from our lengthy hiring process which is meant to know the whole person. It's important for us that the recruits are technically solid but it is more important to find out if they can embrace our culture. I would like to hear from Venky how they manage this in a large organisation as TCS.

In a team where empathy flourishes and inclusive culture is there, everyone will put forth their ideas because they understand that they would be assessed on the basis of merit of the idea, in an empathetic manner. That is the absolute, fertile ground for innovation.

Venkateswaran: TCS is 51 years old in the technology space and it continues to grow and prosper and remain relevant to customers. A lot of this goes back to our visionary leadership that created a culture where empathy flourishes. I don’t really remember what we learnt of empathy in B school. But I have seen it from the beginning of my career in TCS right until today. It is really how my leader handles that aspect —how do they deal with employees, customers and different people? The leadership sets the tone and gives the template for behaviour in the organisation. That template percolates over time through sustained leadership which behaves in a consistent manner, displaying empathy. I would like to hear Madhuri’s views from her experience in Unilever.

Madhuri: We need to step back for a moment and look at the connection between empathy, inclusion, business performance and the roles that leadership plays in all of this.

Inclusion makes you bring your whole self to work, to express yourself freely and put forth your ideas without having any fear of being misjudged or misinterpreted. You feel like you belong there. In a team where empathy flourishes and inclusive culture is there, everyone will put forth their ideas because they understand that they would be assessed on the basis of merit of the idea, in an empathetic manner. That is the absolute, fertile ground for innovation.

People who are in a minority often experience less empathy than people who form the median of the population. A more diverse workforce means more diversity of thought and innovation and it's a virtuous cycle. A McKinsey study says that companies that are in the top quartile of diversity have a 53% better financial performance than those that are in the bottom quartile.

It circles back to leadership. When things are going fine, empathy is all well and good but in a pressure situation, people go easy on empathy. If the top of the organisation has a leader that is empathetic and inclusive, then the right behaviour is recognized and rewarded. At Unilever, we've been quite fortunate in having a fairly long line of visionary leaders. Paul Polman, of course, comes to mind immediately. He was CEO from 2009 to 2019. He embraced empathy with a passion. We've got Sanjiv Mehta in India, who is also a great role model, and now Allen Jope, who's the global CEO. He also lives inclusion and empathetic leadership.

Lakshmi: Well, that's interesting Madhuri. Differences will exist and you want them to exist to bring out the best answer or solution to what we want. I've heard Unilever has achieved a very good gender balance over the last few years. What contributed to this?

Madhuri: When Paul took over as the CEO in 2009, among the first things he did was to set up a global diversity board. He could have called his CHRO and said, “Let's do something about diversity,” but that's not what he did. He chaired it. I've been in many diversity board meetings with him and it has been a huge lesson in empathetic and inclusive leadership. He has never been known to miss a diversity board meeting. He prioritized this above all else and he picked gender diversity as what made the most sense for Unilever. The target was 50:50 by 2020 and we've achieved this. So leadership role modelling, empathetic and inclusive leadership—that's number one.

The second big reason is the way the whole journey was measured. We always say, ‘measure what you treasure.’

Every person in the organisation must understand the importance of being genuinely curious about their colleagues and having conversations to look beyond the stereotypes. That is when empathy starts to come up. Unilever is a marketing organisation. We have got the whole communication right. We make sure that every employee in the organisation repeatedly gets the story and it's high in their consciousness. Messages are reinforced constantly.

Lakshmi: You talked about stereotyping —our own coloured way of looking at things. It's the classic definition of the iceberg. What you see over the water is very little and there is so much underneath. Venky, how do you manage this whole thing of empathizing with your customers?

Venkateswaran: Customer empathy is one of the very central elements of the whole business. We sell mission critical software to financial institutions. This is compared to open­heart surgery. For a bank, it’s a nightmare to move from one system to another. The transformation is very complex and considered high risk. Empathy plays a big role here. Recently, I got a call from the CEO of a bank. I was tensed up. Luckily, he did not talk about our product or service. He just said that he was talking to me because I and my team understood their requirements more than anyone else. This is a proof of our customer empathy.

We also take empathy into our products. We have user experience designers and product managers who look at the customer persona, do a lot of analysis and spend time figuring out all that is essential.

For instance, when we take a life insurance policy, the empathy shown by the insurance company or its staff is not as important, as when, God forbid, something happens and the dependent member goes for making a claim. Empathy shown in the latter case is very important and it must shine through your culture and leadership.

Lakshmi: Does empathy shown to employees impact your business results and how?

We also take empathy into our products. We have user experience designers and product managers who look at the customer persona, do a lot of analysis and spend time figuring out all that is essential.

Adam: Being empathetic doesn't mean that you give everyone, everything that they want. In fact, being empathetic makes you a better negotiator or a better vendor to work with or a better employer. When you’re in business, you get into leadership and you have to drive results. Use empathy as a tool to drive those results. We are one of the best companies to work for, in Charlotte, in a very short period of time. That is a result of empathy leading to delivery.

I had an employee who came to me and said, “Adam, whatever you want me to do, I'll do it because I've never felt like my opinion mattered anywhere else before.” That was one of my best moments in the three years since we started.

The first step in creating self‐empathy is to take a pause, take stock and be aware that you pay for all the physical and mental stress. Secondly, you must develop mitigation actions or solutions for that.

Lakshmi: We all hear about a lot of stress. Our children are also stressed. Are we doing too many things? Can you talk about self­-empathy and what we can all do to keep our own selves in good shape —for our mental, physical and emotional well­being?

Oscar: I also come from a culture where you keep your head down and work hard. As a leader, we are supposed to be supermen or superwomen. We have to take responsibility for our colleagues. We send them out into the market now to meet customers, painters, store owners and the like. We are responsible for keeping them away from the virus. That is also a huge mental stress.

The first step in creating self-empathy is to take a pause, take stock and be aware that you pay for all the physical and mental stress. Secondly, you must develop mitigation actions or solutions for that. In one of our virtual cup of coffee calls, my marketing manager proposed an exercising challenge. We had competition and peer pressure to make sure that everybody would exercise and work on their physical health as well, which was extremely effective. On a personal level, I started to pick up my hobbies again. I have now got more time to practice on cooking my biriyani and paint more.

The third is the element of rewarding yourself and being kind to yourself, especially when you're not able to meet your targets and more so, in these challenging times. How can you show empathy for others if you cannot show empathy to yourself?

Lakshmi: Is empathy a new buzz word or has it always been there? What has changed?

Madhuri: You call a rose by any name and it still smells as sweet. Compassion, caring, inclusion or empathy—call it what you will but it's a human value, the need to feel connected and be recognized; it goes right back to the times we were wandering around in the caves. I don't think that has changed. In the corporate environment, it is linked to business performance but at the core of it, it is a human value and need.

Lakshmi: Does empathy mean non-performance? Does it mean complacency?

Venkateswaran: If you weigh only empathy and lose focus on business, then business will go down. Empathy is not about saying yes to everything, as Adam said. It requires a delicate balance. Empathy is not promoting non-performance. Empathy is just an element of human connection. When there is a culture of empathy, people willingly work for their managers.