Empathy: empowering diversity in the modern workforce

In this opinion piece, Dr Victor Sojo of the University of Melbourne’s renowned Centre for Workplace Leadership within the Faculty of Business and Economics explores how and why business leaders should be fostering empathetic thinking and related soft skills in the name of growing and managing a diverse team for business success.

diverse classroom

The relationship between workplace diversity and organisational benefits, both culturally and commercially is complex. What we do know is that while diversity alone may not produce tangible benefits, successful management of diversity and inclusion together within an organisation can.

When diversity is properly managed, feelings of belonging increase, organisational culture is more positive and occupational wellbeing is enhanced – employees are likely to be more respectful and less discriminatory, with increased emotional and professional (or ‘task-related’) support between colleagues. In turn, valued individuals become more inclined to work harder in their roles, engage in active team problem solving and display stronger commitment to the organisation, driving productivity and innovation.

With a range of opinions, skillsets and experience, a diverse personnel pool can help ensure an optimum mix of minds are at the table to address complex business challenges and effectively respond to client and customer needs. Further, it provides a valuable breadth of perspective to product and service developments targeting new or untapped markets, as well as those focused on scaling uptake across communities.

Empathy as a process is also complex. At its core, it allows us to attempt to see the world from somebody else’s perspective without forgetting who we are, but humans are more likely to empathise with individuals they perceive as close and groups they belong to. This means that using empathy as a tool to help build diverse and inclusive workplaces requires active management.

Empathy can be learned through observation and repeated reinforced experiences. That is, we can observe our parents, siblings, friends, classmates, colleagues and the like behaving in an empathic way with others and see the consequences of these actions. If the outcomes are positive, it is possible to learn that empathy pays off. Similarly, we can exercise empathy towards others and observe how that works, modifying our behaviour to be more or less empathic in line with desired responses. However, of equal importance, we need to create the right conditions for empathy to be exercised. By explaining to individuals the value of empathy, creating a psychologically safe environment, and teaching people how to observe, ask questions and listen without jumping to conclusions and judgements, we can create a work environment where empathy helps everybody thrive.

Asking the right questions, listening and observing are key skills good people leaders need to learn and harness in order to get the most out of a diverse team. Most leadership development programs focus upon expressive communication skills such as public speaking, idea organisation and tailoring messages to the right audience. Yet, leaders also need to acknowledge and understand the characteristics of human behaviour, in particular about the people they are responsible for.

An important part of this insight acquisition comes from observing how their employees work together and as individuals, asking questions about work processes, individual experiences and team dynamics, and really listening to what their employees have to say about all of these. This is the first step towards empathic leadership, without which it is very difficult for leaders to truly understand what is going on with their people and actively engender feelings of belonging.

Beyond employees, empathy is central to understanding the needs of clients and consumers. The only way to design products and services that really cater for the needs of target markets is by attempting to apply a lens shaped by the mindset of current or potential clients and consumers. Part of this process requires having employees in your team who belong to the markets in question and taking the time to listen to what they have to say, ensuring that both you as leader and them as team members start to learn about experiences neither party normally has access to.

A work environment where people can voice opinions respectfully without fear of penalties, where different ideas are encouraged, heard and used by decision makers and workmates alike is crucial. In this context, it should be easier for people to engage in the cognitive and emotional processes that are necessary to induce empathy for colleagues, clients and customers.

With special thanks to:

  • Dr Victor Sojo, Centre for Workplace Leadership, Faculty of Business and Economics, the University of Melbourne