Empathy: The soft skill that delivers hard results
We all need to focus on people. Customers, colleagues, employees, learners, patients; they are the individuals who determine the success of your organisation.
Understanding and communicating with these people requires many skills, but the most important is empathy.
Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
With other elements of emotional intelligence, empathy is one of the key soft skills that a wide variety of roles require to perform well. Developing empathy isn’t straightforward but there are proven methods that can be used for effective workplace training.
Why you need empathy
There’s a good business case for having more empathy within your organisation. The most obvious results can be seen in the way sales teams deal with your customers and managers deal with your employees.
The following examples are taken from a report by the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations:
- L’Oreal sales agents who were recruited based on emotional competencies sold over $90,000 more on average than salespeople selected traditionally
- Sales reps at a computer company hired based on their emotional competence were 90% more likely to finish their training than those hired on other criteria
- Production in a manufacturing plant increased 17% when managers were trained on emotional competencies like empathy, compared to no change with untrained managers
- American Express sales advisers whose managers had been trained in emotional competencies grew their businesses by 18.1% compared to 16.2% for those whose managers were untrained
Top companies have built empathy training into their workplace learning. You can see the strategy bearing fruit by looking at the performance of companies at the top of Lady Geeks 2016 Empathy Index.
Apple’s trademark genius bar staff use a training manual which focuses on empathising with customers whether dealing with faulty products or selling new items.
Facebook have a dedicated team called the Empathy Lab who make their products easier to use for all users, including those with limited physical abilities.
When you’re competing externally for customers and internally for employees, you need to be instilling empathy in your workforce.
Digital empathy training
We’ve dealt with how empathy is a fundamental skill for digital learning designers, but there are many advantages in creating digital solutions for delivering empathy training to your employees.
Any staff member dealing with sales or customer engagement would benefit from training in emotional competencies like empathy. These roles are often deskless and require up to date content, making them ideal for a digital learning strategy.
Your team of remote workers are rarely in the same place at the same time, rolling out consistent and effective training to them is much easier with a digital or blended approach. Providing a digital mix of learning content gives all your employees a chance to keep up to date and reinforce their soft skills training whatever their schedule.
In this video-based elearning for the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA), fundraisers were put in the shoes of various potential donors who had physical or learning disabilities.
The digital training was delivered to new fundraisers as part of an induction that reinforced the traditional printed guide book. By showing fundraising from the donor’s point of view, it gave context to the rules and guidelines set out in the book and helped fundraisers to be more empathetic in their role.
Leadership training should also include empathy and other emotional competencies. Elearning is ideal for reinforcing this type of learning.
It’s easy to assume that a manager who has experienced a colleague’s challenges themselves would be able to empathise with them, but it turns out that isn’t the case.
In their paper, Having “been there” doesn’t mean I care: When prior experience reduces compassion for emotional distress, researchers at Northwestern University in the US found that people who haven’t overcome a challenge themselves are more likely to engage positively with an employee who is struggling with the same issue.
The evidence confirms that any manager can make a big difference to the performance of their team through empathising with them, and empathy training is proven to be effective. All leadership training programmes should include empathy training to ensure the best results from managers and their teams.
The future of empathy training
The new empathy-enhancing technology making a big splash in recent years is virtual reality (VR). Chris Milk, VR pioneer describes it as “the ultimate empathy machine” in his his TED talk.
It’s possible to be more immersed than ever in someone else’s environment, but are you really connecting with how they feel? That’s a question Paul Bloom discusses in his Atlantic article:
“VR doesn’t actually help you appreciate what it’s like to be a refugee, homeless, or disabled. In fact, it can be dangerously misleading. The problem is that these experiences aren’t fundamentally about the immediate physical environments.”
Virtual reality that enables people to emotionally step into a stranger's shoes may be some way off, but for more familiar situations virtual immersive learning experiences can play an important role in building empathy for all kinds of workplace scenarios.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is another emerging technology poised to make a big impact to learning design. Although AI could help with creating learning in the near future, there’s a long way to go before artificial empathy catches up with a well trained manager.
Despite their potential, these new technologies do not offer a magic bullet for empathy training; creating effective soft skills training still depends on building learning content that speaks to your learners.
Working with a content partner like Sponge which offers a full service including learner needs research, bespoke content delivery and an intelligent learning platform will give your organisation the best chance of delivering empathy training that improves results.