Using empathy as a compass to successfully navigate change

In the second part of business coaches Oliver Hansard and Joss Mathieson’s Empathy Manifesto, they outline how empathy can be used as a compass to create a modern, inclusive and high-performing workplace for the future.


This is the second part of the Empathy Manifesto, a three-part series by business coaches Oliver Hansard and Joss Mathieson. They believe that effective leadership, organisational agility and high-performance in uncertain times all rely on excellent behavioural skills, and above all empathy.

In part 1, they explored the need for leaders to use a new suite of behavioural skills to navigate our uncertain world. In this part, they consider how empathy can be used as a compass to create a modern, inclusive and high-performing workplace for the future. In part 3, they will explain how leaders can develop the ability to lead more empathetically.

The pressing need for organisations to rapidly change and continuously adapt has become inescapable. However, organisations have choices about how they approach change. It is our belief that businesses with highly-developed and resilient behavioural skills will be the best equipped to successfully navigate these challenges. At the core of this is empathy.

From our work with leaders and leadership teams, we believe there are four critical dimensions to empathy, which form a useful compass to guide us through change.

The first one of these elements is empathy for oneself. For good reasons, we have heard a lot about wellbeing, resilience and mental health during the coronavirus lockdown, and the need to stay healthy and to be kind to oneself. However, being empathetic to oneself is easier to say than to do.

If you are working at home, the pressures of working life do not disappear. Indeed, they can multiply with the need to care for children, ageing parents, and/or a partner. The task of finding time for oneself, to reflect and restore, can be very difficult.

But it is essential to be kind to yourself in order to be empathetic to others. By increasing your awareness of how you are thinking and feeling, this increases your ability to bounce back from setbacks and embrace the positives you can feel grateful for, giving you a better chance to stay positive and be empathetic towards others.

Courage and curiosity

Being truly empathetic towards our colleagues and customers requires curiosity and courage. Here the need is to put ourselves in the shoes of others, to understand and appreciate what they might be going through and what they need from us. The way in which we behave with others needs to reflect that understanding, for example:

●     For colleagues looking after small children at home, what support do they need to be able to work differently in order that they can manage customer relationships as effectively as those who are not parenting?

●     How do we effectively support customers whose financial situation is very different and more under strain than that of the organisation for which we work?

In these and many other circumstances, empathy is an essential tool which enables us to stop, listen, understand and relate to those we work with and empowers us to respond accordingly in different circumstances. Being empathetic on a person to person level is also important as individuals reflect and demonstrate the values and behaviours of their organisation as a whole. Empathy demonstrated by each employee multiplies and becomes a key enabler of a positive culture and brand experience of your wider organisation.

Being empathetic with one’s team takes a combination of self-awareness and, again, valiance. Truly understanding how your team is feeling (for example, running a staff pulse survey and then having open discussions about the results), being compassionate and understanding about what they can achieve when working remotely, and being authentic in communicating and setting goals become key factors in team success over the medium-term.

Listening, acknowledging, testing and learning are all critical activities to have the best chance of getting the most out of your team. Where these behaviours are demonstrated effectively, managers consistently ask for feedback and at the same time are authentic and honest with their teams about the business’s situation and ambition. If the business reality is kept hidden or managers fail to listen or act on feedback, staff can become disengaged and hard-earned loyalty can be jeopardised.

Enhancing company culture

In many respects, organisational empathy is the sum of self, colleague and client, and team empathy. These are the building blocks to support and enhance your company’s culture from the bottom up. However, organisational empathy should be top-down as well.

An organisation’s leader must demonstrate empathetic behaviours in a clear and consistent way and must demand the same of the senior leadership team. The need more than ever is for the CEO to be the Chief Empathy Officer. In the most effective organisations, top-down empathy is reflected in the behaviour of individual leaders, colleagues and teams.

And of course, if the organisation as a whole can do this effectively, this empowers its relationships with the outside world, with customers and with the broader stakeholder base.

How to become an empathetic leader

There is little doubt that the most successful companies in the future will need to be both adaptable and financially robust. To achieve this, the value of “softer” skills cannot be underestimated and empathy will be at the apex of these critical human behaviours.

The good news is, whilst leaders need to authentically demonstrate empathy, it can be learned and developed. According to Businessolver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Survey, 73% of employees believed that empathy can be learned, up from 65% in 2017. Listening, understanding and responding skills can be taught and enhanced to make individuals, and the business as a whole, more effective in the way they operate internally and in terms of how they engage with the world outside their organisation.

*In part 3 of this series, we will explain how leaders can develop the ability to lead more empathetically.

If you would like to know more about empathy and the work we do, please contact Ollie and Joss at [email protected]; and [email protected]; 

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