Have you ever been told that you were too emotionally invested at work? Maybe you’ve been chastised, ridiculed or patronized for being too concerned about your team members as individuals…

Good managers understand and appreciate the fact that the needs of the organization are paramount where profitability and customer service are concerned, but the best managers also recognize that without employees, the organization would cease to exist. They are individuals who show up in support of the organizational goal. They come with lives, families, professional aspirations, feelings and thoughts all their own. The positions they hold with the organization and the work they perform may represent one aspect of their lives and being, but certainly not the whole. When we as leaders begin to recognize that we are purposefully positioned to uplift and support them, the workplace may experience a resurrection of the dying culture of loyalty.

The Leading Edge: In 2017 at the MIT Commencement address, CEO of Apple, Tim Cook offers this advice: “People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.”

Empathy training for managers was on the rise during that time and in a more recent survey of 150 CEOs, empathy was recognized as key to success by over 80%.  This tells me that there is enough evidence to reconsider the importance and dismissal of emotional intelligence in the workplace.

As leaders, how do we shift from a culture defined by aggression and/or competition to a culture of empathy? First, it’s important to admit that it is leadership who has created and continues to endorse the existing social norms and organizational behavior. That said, it must be leadership who recognizes that what was socially acceptable for so long must change for the health and growth of the organization. Keep in mind that with this admission and accompanying decision to upend culture, backlash is inevitable.  Wait! It’s just the reality check phase.

Keep reading… Good news is on the way. New expectations will begin to clash with what had been acceptable behavior, creating confusion, misunderstanding and maybe even a little chaos. Those who had supported and adhered to the previous culture may feel betrayed and subsequently label your new leadership attempts as hypocritical or worse – out of touch.

Is a culture shift worth the drama and pain which will precede progress? Absolutely! Consistently working with existing social norms can change organizational culture.

In his book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World”, professor of psychology at Stanford University and author Jamil Zaki notes that just as people conform to bad behavior, they also conform to good behavior. Here are a few ideas for using this priceless insight to your advantage:

Practice! Empathy is “more of a skill than a trait”.  If it doesn’t come naturally, persist with practice. Not only can empathy be learned… it’s contagious.

Promote New Norms! No longer should the loudest voices dominate the conversation, create toxicity and hijack the perceptions of others. Only true leaders can draw attention to the new norm, starving the old of attention and rewarding the new.  

Identify Your New Culture Leaders! It’s important to note that these may not be the most popular or the most powerful people in the organization, but they are the most connected and therefore the most influential. When it comes to disseminating information, ideas and values, others look to and listen to them. Zaki refers to them as the “unsung influencers” and they can usually be found within. Recruit and co-create the new culture model with these individuals; allowing them to help you shape the culture as they champion the common cause. I would take this co-creation relationship a step further and request that these individuals keep you and each other accountable to the new culture norms for lasting positive results.

It will take time and it won’t be easy but, in my opinion, the benefits far outweigh the risks. You may discover that your chosen co-creators of culture are part of the empathetic majority. Wouldn’t that be a pleasant surprise!                            

Wishing you empathy and much success! 


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