I Feel For You: The Empathy Gap At Work Strikes Women Deepest

Rae Shanahan of Businessolver, says empathy is key to an organization’s success.

Rae Shanahan of Businessolver, says empathy is key to an organization’s success.

In her first job in 1990 after graduating from a small Iowa college, Rae Shanahan worked in human resources for Maytag in Newton, Iowa.

At the manufacturing company, she says all the women employees were told they had to wear a skirt every day to work. Pants were not an option.

Now Chief Strategy Officer at Businessolverwith close to 1,000 employees, Shanahan knows that not only have many workplaces come a long way in creating welcoming and inclusive cultures for men and women, but she is a champion for the understanding of how empathy is a necessary ingredient for any organization’s success.

Rae Shanahan of Businessolver, says empathy is key to an organization’s success. #womenleaders

“How do you build an empathetic organization? That is the million dollar question,” says Shanahan, who is one of the drivers behind Businessolver’s new 2018 State of Workplace Empathy study, the third year in a row for the survey.

According to Businessolver, 96 percent of respondents rate empathy as an important value for companies to demonstrate, but 92 percent believe empathy in the workplace remains undervalued.

The majority of employee respondents said that empathetic employers motivate workers to increase productivity, and eight in 10 reported they would consider leaving their current organization if it became less empathetic.

In a workplace climate with recent episodes of hate mongering on social media per Roseanne Barr’s racist comment, attempts to train employees on racial bias as at Starbucks, and a seemingly endless arrival of sexual harassment charges in all sectors of business, Shanahan says it is the perfect moment to move from awareness to accountability to action.

“Now organizations are trying to reconfigure their expectations. If they are going to have any meaningful thoughtful change, they must have intentionality,” Shanahan says.

“If we take a step back and think about over time, how a trigger drives awareness then there is a lot of power in what is going on. We have a delicate moment now,” says Shanahan. “And the more people are aware, the more people are scared.”

According to the study, employees feel workplace empathy is improving but a gender gap exists. More than 85 percent of men rate their employers as empathetic, compared to 70 percent of women.

Employees feel workplace empathy is improving but a #gendergap exists.

“That is one of the most astounding findings,” she says.

Michael Ventura, founder and CEO of brand and business consultancy Sub Rosa, in his new book, Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership, tells Forbes, “Getting out of your own perspective and seeing the world through different eyes will help you be a better leader and problem solver. Empathy is not about being nice, it’s about understanding. If you really train that muscle you can actually get to a place where that understanding becomes second nature.”

The results of the Businessolver study show that flexibility is more important than traditional team building activities to demonstrate empathy. Employees, HR professionals and CEOs say respecting the need for flexible hours, time off and recognizing employee milestones all contribute to empathetic workplaces.

Employees, HR professionals and CEOs say respecting the need for flexible hours, time off and recognizing employee milestones all contribute to #empatheticworkplaces

“Empathy can be learned,” Shanahan says.

To that end, employees are calling for more empathy training. More than half of employees struggle to exhibit empathy at work, the study shows, with 8 in 10 employees and HR pros saying they would like to participate in empathy workshops, training and coaching. Nine in 10 CEOs would like some sort of empathy training.

And it is not for the sake of goodness alone. Most executives believe empathy is linked to business performance. Eighty seven percent of CEOs believe that a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy in the workplace as do 79 percent of HR professionals.

Similarly, eight in 10 Employees, HR professionals and CEOs agree that an empathetic workplace has a positive impact on business performance, as nine in 10 employees report they are more likely to stay with an organization that empathized with their needs. And eight in 10 report they would be willing to work longer hours for an empathetic employer. Ninety percent of CEOs say they would be more empathetic with more diversity in leadership.

Shanahan says the size of the company or organization is not necessarily a predictor of a level of empathy in the workplace culture. She says when she began working at Businessolver in Des Moines in 2000, there were 10 employees. Eighteen years later, there are 100 times that number of employees in offices across the country.

At a recent Introduced by Technical.ly conference, topics of ethics, polarization, company responsibility and empathy were features. Translator founder and CEO Natalie Egan, an openly transgender entrepreneur whose company provides diversity, equity and inclusion technology for corporations, said she has been experiencing difficulty “having empathy for people that don’t have empathy for me,” writes Julie Zeglen in Generocity.

“I think when you have empathy for how people are making their decisions and their experience and how they got to where they are, it’s a little bit easier than just being angry or vengeful,” Egan said. “The more that we can teach that, the better we’re going to be as a human race, and obviously, corporate America.”

The Businessolver study shows empathy may be the missing ingredient in job satisfaction for many workers. Just half of employees rated CEOs overall as empathetic, while 7 in 10 rated their CEOs as empathetic.

There is a gender gap in empathy as well, with women and Gen Xers are seen as most empathetic. More than  90 percent of employees, HR professionals and CEOs rated female employees as empathetic, while male employees were rated much lower on empathy. Gen X is considered more empathetic than Gen Z, Millennials and Boomers.

But can you create an empathetic workplace culture in one that is numb to empathy?

“The easiest thing is to shift the leadership.” Shanhan says. “You have to have a good change agent to shift the culture, it has to be the intentional focus.”

Empathy is a key part of a successful leadership style, says Danny Leffel, CEO of Crew. “Shared understanding is so critical. When our whole team has shared understanding, everybody knows why they need to do what they’re being asked to do and they’re empowered to ask fewer questions and just go and do because they know the answers, because they understand the context, they understand the rationale,” Leffel told Chief Executive.

At Businessolver, empathy is cultivated by design. One tactic is to have daily “stand ups” where everyone has to tell “their blue sparkle story,” or something positive that happened in their professional or personal lives the day before.

The exercise is a struggle for many, but it helps build empathy or others, Shanahan says.

How empathy arrives and its definition is different by gender, the study shows. Men think recognizing important personal milestones is a top empathetic behavior, while women do not. The study shows that women place a higher value than men when it comes to advocating on behalf of other colleagues.

“People think there is no difference between ego and confidence,” Shanahan says. But there is. “You can’t always play small ball,” she says.

In order to expand empathy in an organization, Shanahan suggests an organization develop awareness of the current culture. And secondly an understanding that empathy is personal, can be done in a business setting.

“Empathetic organizations are more profitable and have a higher brand recognition. It’s not just a personal trait,” Shanahan says.

“Everyone has to build out that empathy muscle.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldonwww.micheleweldon.com