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Can you teach empathy with tech?

HR professionals have stated that empathy is a challenge, but tech may be able to help.

Dave Howell

Teaching empathy
Credit: @galinkazhi via Twenty20

Unleash Your Potential Is empathy an inherent trait that you have, or you don’t? Are there tools to help managers become more aware of the wellbeing of their workforces?

  • For HR professionals showing empathy remains challenging, with only two-thirds (a 10% drop from last year) of HRs believing empathy can be learned.
  • Workplace from Facebook indicates that 58% of the UK employees surveyed would leave their jobs if their company did not empathize with its workforce.
  • How can tech help employers show more empathy with their workforce?

Does empathy have a strategic and commercial value? This is a question business leaders often never ask.

As companies are re-drawing how they structure and manage their workforces as a direct consequence of the pandemic, HR is being tasked with paying more attention to wellbeing, mental health, as well as defining the value that empathy should have on the strategic roadmaps of all enterprises.

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman define three types of empathy. The first, cognitive empathy enables one person to understand how another is feeling. Emotional empathy, the second type, is the ability to identify with what another person is feeling. And lastly, compassionate empathy drives us to act to support others when a need is identified.

According to Businessolver’s state of workplace empathy report, 72% of employees rated their organizations as empathetic, which is four percentage points higher than the prior year.

72% also said their CEOs were empathetic— 9% higher than a year ago.

However, as the report focuses on HR professionals, it’s clear that showing empathy remains difficult, with only two-thirds (a 10% drop from last year) of HRs believing empathy can be learned. With that said, employees report a higher perception of empathy across their workplaces, driven by creating flexible and understanding working spaces and practices.

COVID-19 has changed business perhaps forever.

Mass remote working, challenging workloads, a rapid expansion of new digital skills, and an often shortage of staff who have the necessary skillsets has created a perfect storm for HRs battling to deliver the support their businesses need in what can be a constantly changing working environment.

Here, empathy is an essential skill for all HRs as they evolve talent management across their enterprises.

Nazir Ul-Ghani , head of Workplace from Facebook, EMEA, told UNLEASH, “To create true impact, empathy can’t be reserved for a few individuals, it must be something that flourishes throughout the organization.

“For HR professionals, however, empathy is especially important, as this team is often responsible for creating ‘people’ policies that reflect the culture of the organization and are the first port of call when issues arise.

“Particularly with the rise of remote and hybrid working over the last year, digital tools have become a critical avenue for communicating with staff.”

The value of emotional intelligence has been coming into focus over the last few years.

As wellbeing and mental health have moved to the top of the business agenda, how managers approach the structure and communication with their teams is radically shifting. Here, empathy plays a central role.

 Often described as ‘soft skills’, a more accurate description, especially for HRs, is ‘human skills.’

Empathy Tech Tools

The need to deliver more human support and new digital tools are intersecting. The use of automation – most notably AI – is having a profound impact on many business processes.

A risk seen by some CHROs is that their jobs may be diminished by these technologies and remove them from close contact with the people they are tasked with supporting.

AI, for its own sake, as with any other technology, is useless. Technology must be implemented with clearly stated goals. For HRs, removing many repetitive tasks that make up a high percentage of their working day could deliver the time they need to consider how mental health and wellbeing can be better supported across their businesses.

The Businessolver report revealed that 79% of HRs agree that AI could help them become more productive.

As HRs constantly develop the learning experiences of their workforces, so HRs themselves can teach themselves to become more emotionally aware of how they as leaders communicate with their workforces.

Learning to be more empathetic is not a tick box exercise. Active listening, for example, can often be an excellent first step on the road to becoming a more compassionate leader.

How professionals learn is also changing

Speaking to UNLEASH, Ruth Hill, head of learning at Bodyswaps that uses VR to deliver a range of human skills training says: “We’ve been using soft-skills training simulations in VR to teach essential empathy-building skills, such as active listening, perspective taking, teamwork, emotional intelligence, leadership and so on for a while now.”

Hill continued: “The technology allows learners to literally step into the shoes of another person and witness situations from their perspective.

“This gives them access to insights and builds empathy in a way they’ve never experienced before.

“The training empowers leaders to not only hear the words employees speak, but also recognize the feelings and values revealed by their non-verbal cues.”

Facebook’s Nazir Ul-Ghani also explained that empathy, technology, and inclusion are essential to integrate: “Technology can take us some of the way, making communications more personal and reducing the distance between employees, but HR professionals have a vital role to play in ensuring that empathetic communication is a priority at all levels.

“That could be as simple as ensuring everyone is on the same platform – whether you’re in HQ or working on the frontline – or creating spaces for people to express themselves. Our research supports this, finding that 62% of employees want their leaders to share their views on issues such as climate change, diversity and inclusion.”

James Scott, who is the CEO and co-founder of Thrive, points to the applications that many HRs have already deployed as a starting point to support more empathy:

“Some employee apps have social sections built into their platform, for example, social walls where employees share their personal photos and stories for their colleagues to view and comment on.

“Other social sections include peer-to-peer recognition, where colleagues can nominate and recognize each other for their achievements and contribution to the team. “

And empathy begins with the HR professional themselves, as Dr Tanya Boyd, organizational effectiveness expert at global people development company Insights Learning and Development, explains to UNLEASH: “One way is to start with ourselves. People cannot be empathic to others without filling their own cup first (and regularly). We must be compassionate with ourselves before we can extend empathy to others.”

In a recent TED talk, Dr. Jamil Zaki shared five exercises to help build empathy. Practicing self-compassion is the first. Doing this, he says, increases people’s capacity for empathy.”

The Value of feeling

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said: “Empathy makes you a better innovator.”

It is clear that empathy is now a vital component of successful companies.

Laura Baldwin, president at O’Reilly, outlines how they approach empathy across their organization: “We’ve baked empathy into O’Reilly’s operating principles, calling on employees to ‘be hard on problems, not people,’ ‘tell meaningful stories’ and ‘look from the outside in.’

“These may be simple examples, but the intention behind each is to put others first—one of the tenets of empathy,” Baldwin continued.

“Teaching empathy through technology is a bigger challenge. There are many tools that can help you measure your accessibility standards or ensure that you don’t use discriminatory language, for example.

“But empathy at its heart is a human emotion that’s cultivated when everyone treats it as their North Star in how they operate, both as employees and as individuals.”

The need to show high levels of ROI has often been at odds when empathy is concerned.

Bodyswaps’ Ruth Hill explains businesses need to see how human skills become a component of their enterprise’s profitability, often delivered by HR: “There has long been this fallacy that empathy is somehow bad for business.

“But, in fact, the opposite is true. Organizations with empathic leaders enjoy a more creative, productive workforce with higher morale, greater loyalty, and a willingness to go the extra mile.

“And consumers are also using their purchasing power to reward brands that demonstrate empathy towards employees and customers.”

With staff shortages becoming a chronic problem in specific jobs and sectors, HRs need to evaluate the levels of empathy communicated to their workforces to ensure they hold onto critical staff members.

In addition, as businesses look towards a post-COVID-19 future, only those companies that have the right staff will thrive.

Shai Weiss, CEO or Virgin Atlantic, said: “Leading with purpose and empathy has never been more important, both during the pandemic and now as we emerge from this crisis. As leaders, we must be open to thinking differently and listening to views that challenge the status quo.

“At Virgin Atlantic, Facebook Workplace has really helped us drive actionable change by creating an active community where our people are heard, supported and valued as individuals and a collective.”

So, can tech teach empathy?

Insights Learning and Development’s Dr Tanya Boyd advises there is a balance to be struck: “Tech can both help and hinder development of empathy. It can help by making it easier to find those with different perspectives, backgrounds, beliefs, opinions, personalities, jobs, strengths, and more.

“However, you have to intentionally seek those differences out because, without that intention, tech tends to surround us with more of what we already like and know…including people who think and act like us.”

Boyd concluded: “Also, while tech can help us arrange chances to connect with those different from us, and in some cases can allow those connections to happen where they might not otherwise.

“For example, being able to speak with a person in another part of the world on a video call. Tech often gets in the way of having deeper conversations and building a true connection.

“Again, intentionality is key. Setting tech aside and focusing on the other person completely is a useful component of demonstrating empathy for another.”

HR may consider empathy to have little direct impact on their day-to-day responsibilities. However, research from Workplace from Facebook indicates that 58% of the UK employees surveyed would leave their jobs if their company did not show empathy towards its workforce, with nearly a third (27%) also stating they had almost given their notice for this reason.

For HRs, developing empathy skills is essential. Tech can help, but don’t expect tech to be the only tool to become a more empathetic professional.

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