Want to boost innovation at the workplace? Start with empathy.
This overlooked quality is very important that many leaders of organizations fail to learn and implement at the workplace. Some even view it as a trait of the weak. But who says being empathetic can’t come together with being professional?
“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”
- Oprah Winfrey
Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to others’ feelings. Perhaps, companies have been trying their best to understand their customers very well, but they haven’t put enough effort into understanding their own employees. Yet, this quality has been repeatedly emphasized by most, if not all, innovation leaders out there, whether it is design thinking, Satya Nadella’s Hit Refresh, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, or Yukai Chou’s Gamification framework.
One of the notorious reasons employees leave a company is due to the lack of feeling appreciated from their colleagues and managers. When people feel not being cared for, they no longer feel belonged to that place. There’s a saying “empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heard of another”. People want their voices heard. Going beyond results, what is more valuable to the company is retaining good talents. Empathy increases trust and a sense of value among the staff. Hence, using empathy as the core driver for innovation can help retain existing great talents and attract new talents.
Free lunches and beautiful offices are not what people really want - they’re just nice to have. What workers want out of their workplace is a sense of fulfillment, trust, work-life balance, work being appreciated, learning and development, a good relationship with colleagues, and fun. The “work from home” culture has increasingly been popular and demanded by millennials because the workplace is lacking a lot of the elements they’re looking for, although the less popular reason for this is to save on commuting time and cost. For them, there’s no motivation in going to the office if they can deliver the same result from home that offers a better working environment. Now, imagine if the workplace is fun, engaging, and collaborative, the mindset toward “working from home” might have changed. When the workplace feels like a second home and your boss is more than merely someone you take orders from, you would be more committed and motivated to go to the office.
Not only do happy employees want to do more for their work, but they also want to help their colleagues. As a result, interactions between colleagues will become better and more understanding of each other. Senior leaders of organizations play a critical role in determining the effectiveness of the company culture, and the optimal culture of innovation can only be achieved when leaders truly understand the values, the key motivators, and the drivers of their employees. The leaders serve as role models for the remaining of the employees.
The environment that we work in is one of the main enablers that is driving innovation and creativity. When teamwork is optimized, so is productivity. When staff enjoys working together to deliver better results, there is a higher frequency for co-creation and a higher chance for creativity. When a team has a high level of synergies working toward a common goal, they tend to take more risks and think “outside the box”. This is followed by experimentation through co-creation, which definitely stands a higher chance of outputting creativity as a result than the traditional way of working.
Cited from the Gamification framework by Yukai Chou, when a company uses a “human-focused” design approach, it understands that people have emotions, insecurity, motivations, and reasons to do things the way they do. As leaders, we have to respect our employees’ boundaries and insecurities - respect makes employees more engaged in their work. Providing free yoga classes for employees does not help solve the real cause of the problems within the organization. Instead, we have to motivate workers based on their individual needs. Only when leaders really understand this and treat their workers better is when they truly understand what the factors hindering the company from progressing are. It’s important to keep in mind that companies will only innovate when the people innovate.
In order for the company to be more purpose-driven as a whole, the employees ought to have aligned goals towards the same outcome. Expecting each and every single employee to have that mindset of an innovator without any effort is like wishing for the rain to pour money. Instead, what organizations can do is getting a step closer and closer towards that ideal state, starting from the senior leaders then working the way down. Consider the benefits of exercising empathy at the workplace, this humane quality does not only stop here at the workplace, but it will extend to family and personal life relationships too, making the world a better place.