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13 February 2023: For decades, IQ (Intelligence Quotient) was the ultimate sign of a competent employee and capable business leader. Today, in a climate characterised by uncertainty, rising economic pressure, changing social ideals and political turbulence, more businesses are appreciating the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ). One of the hallmarks of EQ is the ability to practice empathy. In the workplace, empathy is one of the main cornerstones of effective people management and leadership. 

Advocating for the tangible value of fostering a culture of empathy in the workplace is Kgomotso Ramoenyane, Executive General Manager of Human Resources at Business Partners Limited. As she explains: “Empathy has long been overlooked as a soft skill with little measurable worth in terms of business metrics such as productivity and profitability. But in the workplace, it should be regarded as a key performance indicator.”

A number of experts agree that empathy is both ‘good for people’ and ‘good for profit’. Statistician and Doctor of Social Psychology, Tara Van Bommel describes empathy as an “effective business strategy” and an essential component of crisis management, transformation and building inclusive workforces in which people can thrive.

According to Ramoenyane, the most immediate benefit of practicing empathy towards colleagues and peers is longer lasting and more meaningful relationships, which are beneficial in both personal and work settings. As she asserts: “Empathy allows people to overcome social, cultural and language barriers, and when employees feel understood and acknowledged, they perform better, feel more incentivised and have more positive attitudes towards their jobs. This can have far-reaching benefits, such as better employee retention, higher levels of productivity, more creativity and innovation and improved levels of customer service.”

Ramoenyane has a keen interest in helping small businesses to build their ventures on strong values such as empathy, because as she explains: “In small businesses, employees are often called upon to perform under immense pressure. Unlike larger corporate teams, small business workforces rely heavily on effective collaboration and mutual cooperation. In these cases, the importance of nurturing a sense of belonging and creating an environment in which each individual can understand their importance and value, is critical to business longevity.”

Encouraging small and medium enterprise (SME) leaders to “get practical about people management”, Ramoenyane recommends the following steps to building an empathetic work environment:

Formalise empathy as the basis for workplace communication

Principles such as kindness and compassion should be at the centre of all workplace communications, whether in-person or virtual. When this standard is not followed, employees should be given appropriate channels via which to express their emotions without fear of being judged, discriminated against or ignored.

Ramoenyane encourages leaders to put together a “communication charter” that can be distributed and explained to all team members. This charter should set a standard for what constitutes good communication between co-workers, management teams and senior leaders.

Provide mental health training for remote teams

In SMEs, where entire or parts of the workforce operate remotely, empathy can go a long way in reducing the stress that often accompanies working remotely. The pandemic demonstrated the detrimental effect that long working hours, isolation, higher demands, financial difficulties, and bigger workloads can have on employees’ mental health.

“We need to take the learnings we garnered during the pandemic and apply it to the ‘new world of work’ in which the wellbeing of employees should matter not only to leaders and SME owners, but also to fellow co-workers. Staff members should therefore be made aware (through training, reading resources and open forums) of how to identify and help prevent the signs of burnout from developing further,” says Ramoenyane.

Ask the questions that matter

For SME leaders, Ramoenyane recommends dedicating time and space to receiving feedback by asking open-ended questions.

These catch-up sessions should take place outside of formal review processes and can involve a checklist of a few questions such as:

  • How has the recent change in management affected you?
  • What is the one thing you wish your manager knew and understood about you?
  • Are there any personal struggles you’d like to share?
  • What is the biggest hurdle you’re currently facing at work?

“Use regular check-ins with team members to build trust and prioritise these kinds of relationship-building exercises, especially because in a tough and competitive environment, human capital is an invaluable resource that needs to be shown the necessary support to thrive,” she concludes.

About the Author: Nkululeko Gudazi