Remote teams: The importance of empathy
We've had lots of questions on how we've managed to start a brand new company, and set up a cohesive team, during the lockdowns and we thought we'd share some honest truths. Our answers on how we overcome difficulties are simple. In our previous blog, we started with why trust is and has to be, at the centre of everything we do. This week we're introducing our next simple secret: empathy.
What is empathy?
'The ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation.' - Cambridge Dictionary.
Empathy isn’t a fluffy concept and is actually a sign of good emotional intelligence. It allows us to understand, connect and communicate with each other. This leads to us being happier, having better relationships and being more effective at work.
It's more than just putting ourselves in the other persons' shoes (this would be sympathy). It's putting ourselves in their shoes and actually starting to feel as they do. This is down to something called mirror neurons. In a nutshell, these are the teeny tiny things in our brain which allow us to pick up facial expressions, actions and simulate them in our own minds (thus understanding the intentions and feelings behind them).
“We are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.” —G. Rizzolatti.
Does empathy really belong in the workplace?
Without a doubt. Empathy has never been more needed in the workplace for obvious reasons this year. Most people are working from home. Some of us don't have space to work anywhere other than in our bedroom. Some of us have children running around and photobombing zoom calls. And some of us might be ill and off work but still wanting to be part of the team atmosphere. Imagine if we didn't take these situations, and feelings caused by them, into account? We'd all be miserable. It's important to remember, especially during busy periods, that no one can work at 100% of their capacity, 100% of the time. It's impossible and unsustainable. Empathy is the glue holding all of us together in a positive way and enabling us to do the best we can.
What happens if there is an empathy drought?
According to a recent investigation by LinkedIn, among those in work, 65% said they had felt “very” or “somewhat” stressed in the past month. A lack of empathy within an organisation is toxic, and the effects from it will only be magnified whilst we are all going through these weird times (and needing more empathy from our peers). Without it, we may feel judged, unappreciated, shamed, misunderstood, disrespected and angry. If we don't feel understood, cared about, valued and respected, we will inevitably become disengaged, and, potentially even resentful too. Good employees will lose self-confidence and motivation and might even quit as they witness teams that simply can't function and are damaging to their wellbeing.
Our top tips on improving empathy levels:
Actively listen to our peers. No checking and responding to emails in zoom calls. No daydreaming about dinner. And no thinking through what we want to jump into the conversation with. By resisting distractions and being fully present we can give the other person our full attention and we'll find it easier to start putting those mirror neurons to good use.
Try not to jump to conclusions. It might be frustrating if we're not seeing the work we expected, or a colleague isn’t showing up as their usual selves. Before presuming that they're not putting the effort in, ask them questions. Find out a bit more about what's going on for them. They might be going through a hard time and need a bit of teamwork and a morale boost.
Cultivate a sense of curiosity by consistently exploring what we can learn from others and letting go of the notion that we always have to be right. Even if you are right, or partly right, we may be able to learn something from the situation. Let's be mindful not to assume we know what the other person thinks or feels. The answers could surprise us.
Ask others for feedback. Other people aren't mindreaders either. It's important we let people know how we feel and what's going on for us. It can also be useful for us to ask for feedback. Try asking a friend, family member, or colleague "is there anything you think I could change or improve?". We might be surprised by the support and advice we receive.
We're all experiencing a tough year and we're likely to be feeling a whole host of surprising emotions. As a team, we've experienced people moving back home with their parents, isolating with high-risk partners, being ill themselves, feeling the effects of the never-ending uncertainty, and some even being stuck away from home in other countries. Empathy helps us to understand and appreciate how the other person is doing in each situation so that we can act as a team and support each other to do our best.
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