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Toby Mildon


Diversity and Inclusion Architect

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Diversity and inclusion: what can an empathetic culture bring to business?

A culture of empathy is not only ethically right; it makes good business sense, too.

Culture is not a tangible thing you can put your finger on. It is the sum of our daily habits and behaviours. When you go to work, you expect to feel and see the culture. That’s because we can see the culture around us through things like symbols, behaviours and structures – but it is also what is unseen, the unspoken norms and behaviours that surround us. That’s why it’s so difficult to define culture.

What is an empathetic culture?

According to the Cambridge dictionary empathy is: “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”.

If we want to develop a culture of empathy then we should display day-to-day habits and behaviours imagining what it’s like to be in somebody else’s situation. Can it be this simple? Can anyone do it?

It’s important that we talk about empathy during Covid–19 because our colleagues are facing many challenges.

I don’t see empathy as being a one-way interaction or only the responsibility of team leaders. For me, it’s three-dimensional. It’s something that everybody must practice so that the behaviour becomes a social norm in the organisation. If it’s not normalised then the culture won’t stick. We have to be empathetic of others. We have to be empathetic towards ourselves (don’t condemn ourselves when we make a mistake). We also need to be on the receiving end of empathy.

We need to be careful that we don’t confuse empathy with sympathy. I was born with a rare neuromuscular disability and I’m not strong enough to lift a pencil. Sympathy is colleagues feeling ‘sorry’ for me. They might think I’m ‘inspirational’ for turning up to work every morning. This is not empowering. Instead, colleagues need to understand some of the challenges I face as a disabled person by using active listening.

Why is empathy good for business?

I often tell my clients that inclusive cultures enable them to increase:

  • Retention
  • Employee engagement
  • The effectiveness of decision-making
  • Creativity and innovation

You should expect the same results from a more empathetic culture and:

  • Psychological safety, so that people can speak up and challenge obstacles.
  • An empowering environment, because people don’t feel judged.
  • Reduced stress levels, because we’re respecting one another.

It’s important that we talk about empathy during Covid–19 because our colleagues are facing many challenges. There are relationship difficulties; balancing work and homeschooling; financial concerns; loss of work security, and social isolation. You might have the same worries. It’s easy to rush to judgment, offer solutions or project our own experience onto others. Increasing empathy creates space for our emotions and human experience to percolate, which puts us in good stead for problem solving and creativity.

How do we build an empathetic culture? We need to consider our mindset and then how we deliver the culture.

Growth mindset

Empathy is a skill that we can develop. Our character, intelligence and creative abilities are not static. With a growth mindset we embrace challenges, persist in overcoming obstacles, see effort as a way of sharpening our skills and we learn from setbacks. This creates an environment where we connect with others without awkwardness and not fear saying or doing the wrong thing, which often prevents us from moving forward.

Model desirable behaviours from the top

Cultures are created when employees imitate behaviours of people at the top of the organisation. Therefore, it’s really important that senior leaders ‘walk the talk’ and positively demonstrate empathetic behaviours. According to Bourke and Dhillon at Deloitte six signature traits of inclusive leadership include: cognisance, curiosity, cultural intelligence, collaboration, commitment and courage. Greater empathy helps you develop these traits and become a better leader.

Understanding bias

Unconscious biases occur from the way that our brains are wired (for example, we have a preference for people who are similar to us) and through social conditioning. Therefore, it’s worthwhile understanding our ‘similarity bias’ so that we can understand and connect with people outside our inner circles.

Delivering empathetic cultures

Pick a framework

It helps to have a framework to deliver cultural change. I like Kotter’s eight steps process, in particular:

  • 1. Sense of urgency: help your colleagues understand why empathy is important. Talk about the risks you’re exposing your business to by not having an empathetic culture.
  • 4. Enlist a volunteer army: create a movement by getting colleagues on board (after you’ve created a core steering coalition) to embed change in your business. This army can deliver change initiatives and generate quick wins.
  • 8. Institute change: articulate how a new empathetic culture enables your business to succeed. Show the connection between empathy and success so that new behaviours replace old ones.

Inclusive employee journeys

Use empathy to understand the ‘journeys’ colleagues go on and the ‘speed humps’ or ‘roadblocks’ slowing them down or preventing them from completing a journey. For example, put yourself in the shoes of a parent striving for career success but having difficulty balancing work and family commitments due to poor flexible working. Or somebody who is blind and unable to submit a job application because your careers website doesn’t work well with a screen reader. You can design more inclusive experiences by increasing your level of empathy with different users.

Are you creating a better culture for your organisation and its people?

HRZone has recently launched Culture Pioneers to support and celebrate the people practitioners dedicated to transforming company culture in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. If you’re doing good work in this area, we want to hear your story!

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Toby Mildon

Diversity and Inclusion Architect

Read more from Toby Mildon

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