Personal Reflection: Empathy In The Workplace

Posted March 16th, 2021 in Corporate Culture, Personal, The Human Element

Just before I chaired a Board meeting last year, I spent a frustratingly painful hour going through many of the uncomfortable details of my divorce process and a set of emotional custody issues with my lawyers. Immediately after hanging up, with only minutes of transition, I put on my best poker face and dropped into the Board zoom with one of my portfolio companies. With a smile and some attempt at humor, I kicked off the meeting. I chaired it fine, I think, but throughout the meeting my head was rattling around with angst, disappointment, frustration, and all the other negative energy that many divorces are bathed in. I’m sure it affected my engagement in this instance, and in many others with similar dynamics for the past couple years. And my blogging has suffered. Life isn’t always easy, and divorces are emotional rollercoasters.

I’m also sure that I’m not alone in trying to bury the deep emotions encompassing my life’s dramas behind a façade of normalcy in the workplace. It’s especially true during the COVID pandemic world of Zoom’s… hiding behind the smile and behind the screen. I’m certainly guilty of sometimes turning off the video feed during a meeting just for downtime.

I’m confident that at any given moment many of the people around us are dealing with some seriously distracting personal drama or concern in their lives, and all of us face these issues at some point in time. This means our office environments often have several team members with deep emotional issues they are wrestling down, hidden by their current “I’m at work” façades.

Beyond family issues, a big emotional drain can frequently also be health issues. These are something everyone faces at some point, either for themselves or loved ones dealing with something scary, or a mental health concern. We’ve all had friends and colleagues that have faced cancer themselves or in their family; I lost a good friend and neighbor to lung cancer last fall. Suicides and self-destructive behaviors are a quiet epidemic right now, especially for young people in this socially-distant era, and many of us know colleagues working through these issues in their families.

The emotional, medical, and behavioral battles that often remain largely hidden under the surface, inside ourselves and our colleagues, are in many ways what make us human – both the good and the bad. We all hope to embrace the former, taking on life’s challenge and emotionally processing it with a growth mindset. But the latter is, frankly, more often the case, and was for me on occasion: being human can mean being frazzled, short-fused, quick to judge, dyspeptic, and volatile – all very suboptimal attributes in the workplace.

My divorce is now finalized, thankfully, and we’re working on amicably raising our three teenagers as co-parents, but the whole process has piqued my deep interest in emotional resilience in the workplace and “the stuff you don’t see” from your colleagues at the office. I often wondered, in hallways and meetings, when I saw a face that looked like something big was lurking under the surface: are they dealing with some big personal issue? Is that what my face looks like to others? The reassuring glance or gesture of understanding – of empathy – often went a long way for me in those moments.

Stepping back more broadly, this experience has reinforced for me the critical role of empathetic leadership in creating a positive corporate culture of connectedness that helps mitigate the negative impact of life’s ubiquitous emotional traumas.

Here are some observations on empathy and its role in the workplace, framed as suggestions for improving one’s emotional intelligence.

Show you are emotionally accessible. 

Being emotional at work isn’t a bad thing at all; it shows a passion and humanity that’s the essence of who we are. In fact, being in touch with your own deeper emotions, and conveying them in a professional way, is often the key to unlocking relationships. I’ve cried at work before, and that’s ok.

Being emotionally accessible to others opens doors, e.g., “Bruce shared XYZ with me, so I feel more comfortable sharing with him…” I’ve had portfolio CEOs share scary but very private teenage drama with me when they knew I was dealing with the same, and it helped; I’ve paid that favor that forward with others. Others would sense my angst about the divorce process, inquiring about my kids and how they were coping with the separation – only to open up that they too have parenting or family issues of their own. For many of my professional colleagues, we’ve come out of this process far stronger in our relationship because of the shared moments of emotional accessibility and candor.

Being caring and considerate, and grounded in the understanding that we all face challenges, is the key to empathy in the workplace (and beyond).

Give the benefit of the doubt.  

When I got short with my Atlas partners (more than once) in the past couple years, they largely gave me the benefit of the doubt. They empathized with where I was in my journey, knew I was likely emotionally fatigued, and in most cases gave me a pass. That’s not the same as just accepting bad form or excusing inappropriate tone, but it’s an acknowledgement that life is complicated. And this acknowledgement of fallibility, and simultaneous forgiveness, creates a culture of empathy that greatly strengthens the core of a firm.

The most empathetic people are able to nimbly adjudicate in their own minds where the “benefit of the doubt” is the right call versus other interventions. More often than not, it’s about seeing recent outlier expressions relative to a historic pattern of behavior.

Keep your emotional radar up.

Learning to detect these outlier situations, and acknowledging that they are revealing “the stuff you don’t see” under the surface is important.  This “stuff” is the emotional baggage or trauma others are carrying – and high EQ folks recognize when they can help others carry their loads. Most empathetic leaders have highly refined senses, or radars, for when things are a little off and might need attention.

But detecting something big beneath the surface is just the first step. The second step is figuring out how to unwrap the discussion with a colleague in a way that respects their privacy but offers a shoulder to lean on. “Are you ok” is often a good way of initially engaging, but sometimes it requires more. Often, it involves taking a risk – sharing one’s own emotional situation in a genuine way to signal there’s an open door to others. The final step, if appropriate, is to intervene with help once the openness to an offer of additional support is in place. These are tricky steps, but well worth taking – and can greatly strengthen the shared values and connectivity of an office or team environment.

Put yourself in their shoes. 

Fundamentally, empathy is the ability to understand how another person is feeling, and this often requires the mental exercise of putting yourself in their situation. How would you feel? What would you do? Sometimes, depending on the situation, this can be incredibly hard to do.

But high EQ folks embrace this behavior and “feel” their colleagues situation personally – which allows them to build the requisite emotional connectivity with others. If you’re an executive in a company, demonstrating that you’re an understanding “person first and leader second” is key to establishing a positive empathy-driven corporate culture.

Helping connect those struggling with an emotionally challenging life event to others with similar experiences is often a great way to intervene. This is the essence, obviously, of support groups, but these can play powerful roles in the workplace or professional network for adding new deeper connections. I actually had a fun set of ex-divorced biotech executives that I jokingly called my “divorce advisory board” (DAB) to help me through the process.

Be human with sincerity and authenticity.

Everyone – yes, everyone – deals with deep, distracting, painful challenges at some point in their lives.  You can be an imposter on IQ topics (aka “fake it until you make it”), but you can’t on EQ issues: a cornerstone of emotional intelligence is to be real.

So many colleagues of mine took the time to connect with me in a sincere way over the past year, sharing real concern about where I was emotionally. It was incredible to feel the support.  At the same time, it was easy to sense feigned interest or insincerity on (rare) occasion; that was always a quiet signal to me about their EQ.

The best empathetic leaders are frequently grounded in authentic emotional connectivity with those on their team and beyond. Empathy in this context conveys sincere optimism about how “we can make it through life’s challenges together” and gives others the sense of “team” at a time when they feel most vulnerable and alone. Positive corporate culture creates this emotional support in the organization that goes well beyond tackling corporate objectives.

Lastly, it’s also valuable to remember that it’s the “stuff you don’t see” that makes us wonderfully human. When you see an outlier behavior, don’t dismiss it – find a private moment to reach out. If ignored, it can create an infectious and festering anxiety, or worse, that impacts not just the individual but also those around them. But if embraced, and addressed with positivity, this emotional richness and diversity of experience can greatly strengthen the inner core of a company.

To all of you who have helped me on my journey, thank you.  I’ve felt emotionally connected to all of you, and you’ve opened my eyes even more to the wonderfully positive power of truly empathetic culture and leadership.

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