Yong Kim is the CEO and co-founder of Wonoloa job marketplace that connects employees with jobs posted by companies in the US.
As a company grows, the CEO must constantly redefine their role, level up and make sure they grow faster than the company. Through my years of change and transformation as CEO, there has always been one consistent component that makes me effective in my role: empathy. Empathy in the workplace has always been a critical skill for leaders, but now takes on a new level of meaning and priority as we enter the third year of the pandemic and face unprecedented global challenges that leave us living in a state of uncertainty .
In my view, an empathetic leader is someone who has honed the ability to recognize the emotional needs of others and can use this ability to empower, support, and understand their team. When leaders instill empathy in the workplace, they can recognize when their employees are struggling. These leaders understand how to coach employees through difficult situations and demonstrate concern and support for the well-being of their employees.
A study by Catalyst found that empathy has a significant impact in the workplace: When people think their leaders are empathetic, they are more likely to be innovative at work than those who report to less empathetic leaders. This shows another reason why we need to put more emphasis on the importance of empathy in the workplace: to create a more positive and fulfilling work environment in our companies.
While many leaders may understand this concept, I have noticed that many others find it difficult to act. One of the most important lessons I have learned in my career is the power of vulnerability. Due to societal assumptions and gender norms, many people associate vulnerability with weakness, and it’s hardly a trait leaders rush to embrace. But when I think back to the people who have had the most influence on my life, and the people I respect most, many of them show courage and leadership through vulnerability.
Richard P. Francisco, lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, analyzed the road we create connections with other people, whether we are introverted or extroverted. His paper describes five levels of communication, from everyday rituals (such as a friendly exchange of hellos) to more open and vulnerable conversations. Here’s a summary of each level:
• Level 1: This level includes surface conversations and small talk, such as ‘How are you?’ or talk about the weather.
• Level 2: Typical conversations in the workplace are at this level. You share updates, info, schedules, etc. with colleagues.
• Level 3: You are now starting to share ideas, opinions and a little bit about who you are. At this level, you may explain an action plan you’ve come up with and why it needs to be implemented.
• Level 4: At this level you share what you feel, what is important to you and what you care about.
• Level 5: This is when you begin to share the deeper parts of who you are. It is when you connect your values and feelings to your experiences and relationships with your family, friends and colleagues. This level involves being open, honest, and vulnerable about what you really feel.
Every level of communication is important. The first three levels are used to build a foundation of trust, respect and connection, creating a safe space to dive into the deeper levels. As a leader, you can take the company to level four and five connections every day, whether it’s meetings, one-on-one conversations, or leadership development sessions. For example, you can open meetings by asking your team how they are feeling and encouraging them to give honest feedback. Instead of just asking your coworkers what they’re working on, consider how they’re feeling mentally, how life outside of work might affect them, and whether they need support. You can invite other leaders and managers in the company to do the same.
However, the most effective way to achieve these level five conversations is to lead by example. Consider using company-wide communication channels (email, instant messengers, intranets, etc.) to share your views on how you feel about the state of the company, the world, and your life. You can also set aside some time during your scheduled meetings for all people to share your honest thoughts about your hopes, fears, worries, dreams and everything in between. Being open in this way gives the team a safe space to open up about their feelings as well, be it about you, their colleagues or their manager.
Ultimately, companies are built on the power of the collective community, so it’s critical for leaders to make sure every individual on the team feels comfortable and supported. When we’re going through difficult circumstances, struggling with burnout, or finding it hard to feel fulfilled at work, empathy and the sense of belonging it provides between colleagues can be a formidable antidote.