Tending to the needs of a business and the humanity of its employees requires a delicate balance of practices and policies. This lesson explores ways to achieve this balance when coaching employees.
Practicing Empathy in the Workplace
Empathy is an intentional act of the mind in which one individual places themselves in the position of another. Although it may not seem like it, there is a significant difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy refers to being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and to see things from their perspective. In contrast, sympathy is feeling pity for someone, usually when something negative or bad has happened to them. Empathy is constructive in a practical sense, but sympathy's benefit is restricted to an individual's emotions.
Supervisors at the retail giant Amazon recently got a crash course in practicing empathy when the company implemented a program to hire the homeless for warehouse and distribution center work. The program met with early success but quickly became a pariah when an unintentional lack of empathy caused substantial hardships for the newly-employed homeless workers.
Empathy Coaching in Action
Amazon's program used coaching with empathy even before the homeless candidates were interviewing for the job. A week before Amazon came to hold their hiring event with the YWCA, workers from both organizations came together and made a conscious effort to practice empathy while they prepared candidates for their interview.
The coaches put themselves in the shoes of the people they were assisting in order to help them pitch themselves to hiring managers. The coaches' most important role was to empathize with the candidates and help them represent their hardships and liabilities as strengths and assets.
The pre-interview coaching was a bit frenzied, but effective. Most of the successional coaches reported at least some degree of success. When Amazon came to the hiring event at the YWCA, homeless candidates were ready, and many of them were offered jobs.
Although empathy played a leading role in the program and pre-interview coaching, it was later lacking when supervisors had difficulty relating to specific concerns related to homelessness. Although it was unintentional, the lack of empathy led supervisors to coach employees to meet standards that were nearly impossible to achieve while homeless. Punctuality, attendance, housing, and childcare were all significant external influences that adversely affected the employees. Consequently, many of the homeless employees were involuntarily let go for reasons that empathy in coaching might have otherwise prevented.
Techniques for Empathy Coaching
Absenteeism, timekeeping, and punctuality are in the top five most common reasons for involuntary termination. Empathetic coaching for issues like these is very effective because it is solution-oriented. Empathetic coaching means that a supervisor asks the question, ''Why is my employee experiencing these problems, and how would I solve them if I were in his or her shoes?'' Keeping the employee at the center of the coaching session helps both parties focus on specific, individualized problems and their possible solutions.
Substance abuse, alcoholism, and positive drug screens are common reasons for involuntary termination. Empathetic coaching for issues like these has the supervisor asking, ''If I were in his or her shoes, what could I do to get control of the problem?'' Another important question is, ''If I were struggling with alcoholism, how would I want my employer to respond? If I needed resources, how and where would I find them?'' Even if there is no way to avoid an involuntary termination, empathetic coaching can still be of profound value to encourage an individual to get help. Many empathetic supervisors are empowered by their company to facilitate treatment and terminate the employee. Empathy goes one step further.
Empathetic coaching focuses on an individual's strengths. In the Amazon example, a homeless candidate's specific weaknesses were turned into strengths. By putting themselves in the shoes of another, they were able to craft interview responses in a way that maximized the candidate's strengths. Specifically, the coaches encouraged the homeless applicants to articulate how their past has made them stronger, better people. Empathetic coaching means that a supervisor presents the need for change as building on strengths rather than on reducing weaknesses.
Lastly, it can help to remember that everyone has a story. Empathetic coaching relies heavily on an individual's narrative. Empathetic coaches listen carefully to the narratives of their employees and then respond accordingly. Three important empathetic listening techniques include:
- Giving an employee undivided attention. That means no cell phones, text messages, or emails. Nothing more than a listening ear should be present.
- Giving an employee the benefit of the doubt. Believe the story you hear unless there's a very good reason to not to do so.
- Keeping your emotions in check. Coaching's effectiveness decreases significantly when emotions escalate.
Let's recap. It's important to differentiate between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is an emotion that is simply feeling sorry for someone, while empathy is the conscious act of placing oneself in the position of another. Empathy is better than sympathy because sympathy ultimately helps no one, but empathy often generates a win-win solution, especially in the workplace. When coaching employees, it's best to practice empathy by looking for solution from the employee's point of view.