Transgender CEO Natalie Egan: “The Secret to Empathy is Storytelling.”

July 30, 2019 Emily Payne

4-minute read

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One of the most impactful ways to build a more human workplace is by empowering both employees and managers to have open conversations

In a content track dedicated to navigating emotions at Workhuman® Live 2019 in Nashville, Tenn., the power of conversations was underscored across the board. From dealing with trauma to medical conditions, maintaining open communication and encouraging storytelling within the workplace cultivates stronger bonds, wellness, empathy, and more engaged employees.

Teams need more conflict.

Within teams, this means having more conflict.

According to Liane Davey, Ph.D., best-selling author and co-founder of 3COze, organizations require conflict and tension between opposing forces. In Liane’s session, “The Good Fight: Why Embracing Productive Conflict Will Strengthen Your Team and Grow Your Bottom Line,” she explains the human tendency to avoid uncomfortable issues, accumulating what she calls conflict debt. This conflict debt weighs on employees and impacts organizations – and like credit card debt, it must be paid eventually.

“Our skills training isn’t solving for our belief that conflict isn’t good, isn’t working human. We have to get past that,” said Liane. “Conflict and tension are not the antithesis of teams, they’re one of the main benefits of them.”

When leaders don’t force a difficult conversation about what is most valuable to the business and where to devote resources, the conflict debt ends up getting paid by someone with less context and responsibility. And when colleagues can’t face tensions within teams, productivity and engagement suffers.

Maintaining open communication – even when it means facing difficult topics – is vital to building team environments in which employees’ unique skill sets thrive. And when employees can bring their authentic selves to their teams, collaboration and productivity thrive.

The act of listening

Between employees and managers, research shows that incorporating storytelling into feedback has more effective and positive outcomes. But not only do open conversations facilitate continuous performance management, they build stronger relationships.

“The act of listening itself is very healing and very validating for people,” said Jennifer Crow, Grief and Trauma Response Consultant at Crow J Consulting, in a session titled “When a Coworker Dies: A Case Study on Grief Response in the Workplace.”

“We’re all humans and we’re just talking about humans. We’re not superheroes,” she continued. Managers need to give space for employees to share at their own pace. With a foundation of open communication, this can come more naturally.

When employees feel managers are on their side and see them as human, they are much better equipped to handle life events – and the human emotions associated with them – from accommodating unexpected medical conditions to addressing the lingering effects of assault and harassment. Across each of these sessions, speakers strongly emphasized the need to meet employees where they’re at, supporting them as humans who are experiencing human emotions. Sometimes this means educating on available resources, other times it means simply listening. No matter the situation, open conversations are key.

On empathy

When we’re told a story, our brain releases certain chemicals: cortisol, which helps form memories; dopamine, which regulates emotions and keeps us engaged; and oxytocin, which plays an important role in building empathy.

One of the most powerful stories of building empathy shared at Workhuman Live was by Natalie Egan, CEO and founder of Translator.

Spending the first part of her life as a white, cisgender, heteronormative “alpha presenting” male, Natalie was well-positioned to succeed. And she fulfilled the masculine CEO figure she thought she ought to be. “But it was never authentic – I was burying my authentic self with layers of concrete. And it was well received,” she said to her session, “An Employee Revolution: How to Unlearn the Habits of Bias and Discrimination.”

To the outside world, Natalie reflected, her life looked perfect. The toxic masculine culture learned in college translated well to the workplace – the first 13 employees of her first company were all men that looked like Natalie did at the time. It was a culture of fear, and very intentionally so. “It’s what I thought everyone wanted,” she said.

When she transitioned from male to female CEO, Natalie instantly became a minority. With that transition, she said, came her journey to understand empathy, identity, and inequality.

“The secret to empathy is storytelling,” she said. And that’s when the idea for Translator, a diversity and inclusion training program that aims to scale empathy and equality through technology, was born. Through 100% private and anonymous exercises, individuals can express themselves, ask questions, learn, and reflect on their own identity in the D&I training without fear.

As Amal Clooney emphasized at Workhuman 2018, telling individual stories – from civil rights violations to harassment in the workplace – makes issues easier to understand and helps  build empathy. People start to care when they find a connection. And with open communication and storytelling, these connections can foster happier employees and more human workplaces.


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About the Author

Emily Payne

Emily is a content director living in New York City.