Empathy and Belonging: The Gateways to a Human Workplace

April 21, 2021 Eric Mosley

4-minute read

(This is the fifth and final post in a continuing series, highlighting the five trends that are shaping the human workplace in 2021 and beyond.)

two employees working togetherIn this series, I’ve written about the new work paradigm and how leaders need to change pay, performance management and business metrics to take full advantage of a changing workplace. The final column in the series is a challenge to leaders to embrace the most far-ranging change of all: designing a company culture in which humans come first.

Business thinkers and leaders are consumed by data and business processes. While essential, their infinite capacity to occupy time and attention tends to crowd out awareness of every employee’s human needs. In a human workplace, the need for everyone to achieve his or her potential is a keystone of culture. It’s time to carve out a little mindshare from process to people.

Culture is an individual expression of shared values. Human personalities and human needs are as unique as thumb prints, so culture doesn’t mean conformity. An introvert and extravert might express cultural values like transparency and collaboration differently.

Likewise, demographic data show the workforce is becoming more diverse and insisting on greater diversity. This is especially true among knowledge workers and the innovation economy. The human workplace treasures diversity, both to amplify human uniqueness and to leverage every person’s unique ability to contribute. Diversity of experience, thought, cultural background, temperament, and skills is the stuff of innovation.

The disruptions of 2020 demanded agility and resilience from employees, and the ways in which they showed up to preserve businesses showed two gateways to human culture: the outward skill of empathy, and the inward experience of belonging.

Empathy is a business tool

Empathy is the capacity to understand how others experience the world. It’s a powerful business tool both within and outside a company. When product teams have empathy for customers, they design better products. When team members intuitively understand the special struggles of a single parent working from home, they adjust their routines to help their colleague stay engaged.

Leaders showed empathy last year when they said, “This is tough; we will get through this. YOU will get through this and we’re all going to help each other.” By summoning empathy across the organization, leaders enlisted all employees to watch after each other. Remote work has made this “delegated empathy” more important. It’s every leader’s job to highlight it in 2021.

When you weave empathy into everyday culture, people relate with their heads and hearts, and their minds open to new ways of working. They connect with customers and each other with greater urgency.

Key cultural artifacts of empathy include giving and receiving thanks, celebrating successes, supporting colleagues who need help, sharing positive emotions and seeing each other as individuals. It needn’t be elaborate: A Workhuman survey found 60% of employees think a simple “thank you” makes their workplace is more human. We can connect those actions to business results through human applications, to add them to business processes.

Belonging magnifies culture

We speak of diversity, inclusion and belonging as three qualities of a contemporary business culture. While diversity and inclusion can be thought of as strategic objectives subject to plans and actions, the interesting thing about belonging is that it’s a completely subjective feeling. You can’t demand belonging; you can only create the conditions that encourage it.

Belonging is essential; in Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of human needs, it’s only superseded by physical and safety needs. There are many ways to encourage it as part of your culture; let’s consider just one: In your own organization, increasing belonging might mean widening the circle of “membership” in the work community.

For example, many company cultures developed for the status quo of permanent employees on the payroll. Yet the data show that a growing part of the workforce is gig workers. Rather than think of them as parachuting into a culture that they might or might not participate in, we need to create a culture where they feel they belong. The culture must welcome them, get them up to speed with cultural norms and recognize their participation. There are a lot of quiet signals, such as a weekly “employee profile” on the web that only features salaried employees tells contract, temp or gig workers they are somehow less-than.

Belonging is the acid test of a culture’s authenticity. In 2021 and beyond, it’s going to become more important both to protect investments in human capital and to maximize each person’s engagement in their work.

Benefits of a human culture

In this series, I’ve shared the abundant business benefits of a human culture. The lessons of 2020 should be a humanizing moment for everyone. In great organizations, we saw people humbled by the caring of their peers, and we saw the resilience born of sharing our most human selves through appreciation, adaptation, kindness and esprit de corps. These are the hallmarks of a human culture. When empathy and belonging are present, every employee can be passionately engaged, empowered and united by common purpose.

(This post originally appeared in Forbes)

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About the Author

Eric Mosley

Eric Mosley is CEO at Workhuman.

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