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What is strategic empathy, and how can business leaders cultivate it?

Here in New Zealand, wellness in the workplace is coming on the radar. From government level downwards, it is being viewed as something that should be prioritised. The issue is rapidly disrupting our management and leadership systems as businesses start to value holistic wellness across all roles, including the highly-pressured top-tier and corporate professions.

We are seeing more and more examples of businesses bringing in a new wave of wellness-awareness into organisations to ensure that employees at every level are being taken care of in a holistic manner. Not only does this promote positive workplace cultures, but in turn it creates the possibilities for greater productivity and commercial success.

But what has shaped this need to change our workplace culture and attitudes? The world as we know it continues to change at a rapid-fire pace; it has continued to grow in so many ways which have enabled us to stay connected and distracted. Yet, our human hardware, our brains, are largely the same as they were 5000 years ago, when hyper-awareness was a required skill to keep us alive in the face of danger, not as a system for checking our notifications on five simultaneous platforms.

Let’s face it, we are dealing with more complexity on a daily basis, but with less attention and focus as our hardware tries to keep up with the stress that we’re putting it under. And when we introduce constant stress and pressure to our situations, we naturally rely more on short cuts and existing mental models as ways to handle, or even comprehend the severity of the stress.

To be more effective, to get better results and to give ourselves any semblance of control, we need to be looking at a more human-centred approach to keep up with the tasks we need to deliver in business and the commercial arena.

So, what is strategic empathy and how does it help our primitive brains evolve to progress a new, kinder way of working that still benefits the bottom line?

Empathy is the capacity for a person to understand the rational and emotional drivers of others. Strategic empathy is about giving ourselves the opportunity to invite curiosity into our thinking patterns, to guide ourselves to calm contemplation when it’s needed and to engage efficiently in empathetic conversations in our working environments.

Understanding people on a deeper level is something we implement often in our personal relationships, but barely implement in business environments. When we start to harness the power of empathy, we start seeing that people need balanced wellness not only in the personally controlled aspects of their lives, but also in the business environments where many employees are often governed by corporate techniques of fear, stress and pressure to secure success.

In short, strategic empathy allows us to focus on what matters and have another purpose – for ourselves, for our teams and for our companies to develop a commercial culture that places a focus on wider responsibilities and consequences.

Fundamentally, it is about understanding, not just the mechanical systems, processes and metrics of a situation, but also the emotional, cultural and political aspects that heavily influence human behaviour. Across all business decisions, we should be taking the time to understand the reason behind an action and consider the consequences of the various paths to take, not just responding with an initial knee-jerk reaction. As an emotional intelligence tool, we have it at our disposal to better understand ourselves, our staff and our customers to make highly-educated and well-rounded decisions.

But does this ‘soft-skilled’ approach actually work in the workplace, does it help to increase wellbeing and alleviate stress? I have seen first-hand how fully engaged and motivated people are the most powerful and underutilised resource in business. When leaders develop strategic empathy, they build a solid understanding of their employees, customers and stakeholders, and can then create breakthrough competitive strategies by fostering powerful teams which feel valued for their diversity and are engaged as active, human participants of the business.

The many facets of health, including mental, physical and spiritual, as well as the effects on productivity, visibly grow as employees and companies alike recognise the value of a more emotionally intelligent culture.

The twenty first century corporation should be one where strategic empathy is a skill used by leaders to harness human capabilities and drive powerful business outcomes. Building empathic leaders, more engaged employees and a high-performance culture, without question delivers sustainable outcomes for customers, businesses and stakeholders.

Daniel Murray works with organisations and their people to provide practical, evidence-based skills, tools and frameworks to assist organisations in developing empathy as a capability, powering business results with strategic empathy.

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