What is 'practical empathy' and why HR needs to know how to use it

'We really need to empower our leaders with the resources to act,' says HR expert

What is 'practical empathy' and why HR needs to know how to use it

What’s the number one challenge for organizations going forward? Change management, according to a recent report.

The pandemic brought unprecedented change to the way work is done, and “practical empathy” is a crucial element of talent retention in times of change, said the O.C. Tanner report based on feedback from over 42,000 employees worldwide.

So what does that mean exactly?

“You can respond, you can recover, and you can recognize in ways that build true connection and great work,” said research director Meghan Stettler of O.C. Tanner, at a recent conference. “As you consider the positive implications of practicing empathy in your organization, I want you to seek to understand deeply the experiences of others. We really need to empower our leaders with the resources to act.”

Practical empathy more impactful than ‘warm and fuzzy’

A key statistic from the report is that 41% of employees feel their employers’ expressions of empathy are empty of meaning, and 47% said they lack followthrough. Most “warm and fuzzy” initiatives don’t accomplish much, the report said, and for empathy to be effective in the workplace, there needs to be an action attached to it.

This concept of “practical empathy” was identified as a way to counter empathy fatigue in managers and frustration in employees due to poorly executed empathy initiatives. It can also improve business outcomes, the study found.

Six main steps emerged in O.C. Tanner’s research as fundamentals of practical empathy for HR professionals to implement:

  • Focus on the person by prioritizing individual employees’ needs.
  • Seek understanding through input and feedback on employee experiences.
  • Listen to learn rather than demonstrating empathy.
  • Embrace perspectives of diverse groups and individuals.
  • Take supportive action by acting on the employees’ behalf.
  • Respect boundaries by setting up systems to relieve leaders from comprehensive support roles.

The research found that companies that enacted these policies of practical empathy saw drastic, positive outcomes in the form of increased employee fulfillment at work, increased sense of belonging, strong connection to the company and above-average employee engagement.

Practice practical empathy with equitable flexibility

Employees are eight times as likely to stay another year at an organization where flexibility is equitable, the study found. Conversely, employees who are dissatisfied with the level of flexibility where they work are five times more likely to experience burnout.

The O.C. Tanner research found five areas of focus for HR leaders to establish equitable flexibility in their workplaces.

  • Leadership support of employee needs with empathy and understanding.
  • Organizational support through empowerment of leaders to provide flexibility for their teams.
  • Employee empowerment via the ability to make decisions around their own work conditions.
  • Work choice allows employees some agency about the work they do and how they do it.
  • Time management by giving employees autonomy to manage their own schedules.

Most importantly, employees want fair flexibility that allows them time to do things in life they enjoy, said Stettler.

“Making flexibility fair was never about making it equal,” she said. “It was always about making it equitable - equitable in ways that acknowledge these role limitations and rebalance them with empathy, understanding and resources, in ways that send a very clear message that we trust, and we value you as a whole human being not just as a unit of labor. … It's about providing people the time and the energy to do the things in life and in work that bring them the most joy, the most meaning, the most fulfillment, that is so much deeper than schedules and tasks.”

Tools to implement equitable flexibility

The report offers tools for HR to use to begin implementing equitable flexibility, such as regular one-on-one meetings between leaders and staff to discuss their unique needs, offering mentorship or training options, or not requiring workers to work overtime to make up time lost due to personal needs.

Employees who feel strong support for flexibility around time want to stay with their organization longer, the study revealed.

Stettler said that the average employee experienced ten organizational changes in the last year, not including “unplanned” changes. By providing empathy, autonomy and flexibility to employers, she said, organizations can work towards achieving what she called “nimble resilience.”

“Good cultures provide good jobs. Great cultures – they change people's lives,” said Stettler. “So never forget that you are in the life changing business. And it begins with equitable flexibility.”

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