The value of an empathic workplace

Caring about your employees’ feelings and personal lives is no longer a skill that managers can afford to ignore.

“You know, you don’t need to bring your personal life into work.”

A manager once said that Angela Nino, after that same manager noticed something was going on with Nino and asked her to tell him about it. “I was like, ‘You just asked me the what the problem was, and I told you, and then you told me you didn’t want to hear it,’” says Nino now. “Like, pick one.”

Separating our work from our personal lives is an old refrain, one that’s quickly becoming obsolete as these facets of our lives become increasingly intertwined. Creating an empathic business culture takes effort, but it’s worth the work, says Nino, and for more than just how it affects employee recruitment and retention.

Angela Nino

Nino, a trained forensic interviewer, Chicago-based improv comedian, and founder and CEO of Empathic Workplace and the Improv Therapy Group, explains that not recognizing employees’ personal feelings no longer works.

“If you get in a fight with your significant other right before you leave for work or if you’re taking care of a dying parent, it’s really hard to turn all of that off and leave it at home,” Nino notes. “I find that when I have something going on outside of work that’s impacting work, people know anyway. Now that I’m running something of my own, I’ve found that people’s loyalty to empathic workplaces is so high because when they say they’re sick, I believe that they’re sick. If they’re lying, whatever.

“They’re lying for a reason, and if I give people the space to heal or give people the space to take care of a parent or take someone to a doctor or take their wife to the airport to go visit their kid, that’s the kind of stuff that when people do have time they will show up, be loyal, and get their job done.”

Nino says that beyond recruitment and retention, managers who have empathy for their employees build loyalty and trust. After all, she explains, the way we treat our employees is the way they treat our customers.

“If my boss was just a jerk to me and made it very clear that he or she doesn’t care about me, why would I pick up the phone and care about their customer? It’s not my customer — it’s my boss’ customer, it’s the company’s customer. From the top down, the way that we treat people trickles down to every aspect of the business.”

Nino recalls an incident when she received an angry email from a boss about how she’d “completely ruined” her expense report. “By ‘completely ruined,’ he meant that I’d put lunch in the column where dinner was supposed to be,” says Nino. She was teaching a class at the time and that email impacted her mood and the way that she spoke and came across to the group — her clients.

If any of this sounds like over-sensitivity on the part of employees, you’re half right. It’s sensitivity — to the fact that many managers haven’t created empathic work environments, despite what they think.

According to a recent State of the Workplace Empathy study by Businessolver, there’s a wide gap between workers’ impressions of their chief executive (CEO) in terms of empathy and how CEOs think of their own organization: 92 percent of CEOs reported their organization is empathetic but only 50 percent of employees say their CEO is empathetic.

It gets worse: 96 percent of employees believe it’s important for their employers to demonstrate empathy, but 92 percent think empathy remains undervalued.

There’s a clear disconnect between what business leaders believe and what’s really happening.

“We can’t just put a sign up on the wall that says ‘Everyone here matters’ when that’s not how it actually goes,” states Nino. “We have to demonstrate it in our actions, and that’s why I stress during workplace investigations that it’s a time when our culture is tested. Does this person really matter? Do we have empathy for everyone? What about the person who’s eating other people’s lunches out of the refrigerator? What about the person who’s having sex with their subordinate? What about that guy who sends all those creepy emails? Do we have empathy for them?

“You don’t have to agree with what someone is doing, but every human being out there for the most part is just trying to connect,” continues Nino. “We may not agree with the way they’re doing it but having empathy during those behavior-corrective conversations makes it a lot easier for people to buy into that correction.”

Empathic improvisation

In her work as a forensic interviewer, Nino found that true empathy takes a lot of authenticity and rapport building.

“A lot of times when I had these conversations with people, it was too late to have the empathy,” Nino notes. “The damage was already done. Most of the people who I talked to told me that they were mad at their boss or mad at the company. Happy employees don’t try to sabotage the place that they work.”

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So, Nino began to look at teaching empathy at all stages of the job cycle — for instance, empathy during the screening process for the fact that someone might be nervous, or that someone probably wants to hear from you, so don’t ghost your interviewees, or during the coaching process when someone messes up at work.

“I believe that the culture of a company is tested when someone messes up,” explains Nino. “We can say a lot of things about who we are until someone messes up and then all that kindness and open communication and everyone matters all goes out the window.”

Not only did that feeling lead her to start Empathic Workplace, it also was the impetus of the Improv Therapy Group.

“I am a consumer of therapy — I love it,” says Nino. “It’s kind of like the dentist; I don’t always want to go but I find my teeth are healthier when I do. I find my mental health is better when I go see a therapist regularly. One day, I realized that my therapist and my improv teacher were telling me the exact same things, things like stop trying to be so perfect, stay present in the moment, let go of what other people think. It was like they were on a shared text message or something.”

Nino reached out to her now business partner and director at Second City and suggested combining improv with therapy. One presentation quickly turned into several, including a networking event for a bunch of therapists, which became the foundation for the business.

“We use improv as a way to warm people up for role-play, listening skills, being present, and literally paying attention,” says Nino. “Our main thing that we do is go into treatment centers and rehabs and we play games with people that help them with life skills and recovery. A lot of the people we talk to are trauma survivors and it’s like brain yoga, but it’s fun. We even had one of our clients say improv is better than her antidepressants!”

Nino says one of the things that she teaches in empathy is mirroring, which isn’t the same as mimicking. When people mirror someone, they need to give that person their full attention, which tends to unlock the emotions behind what the person is feeling, allowing for communication at the highest level. “So, if someone’s frustrated we don’t necessarily feel that frustration because we don’t want that transference, but we really start to hear them.”

One of the right ways to go about this it is by being able to tell our stories.

“Anything that someone is going through, we can all understand the emotion that they’re feeling because we can all experience those emotions ourselves,” says Nino. “We might not agree with the actions people take because of their emotions. Anyone who has ever been mad at a significant other probably knows the reaction of sending an angry text message. We may not be proud of that decision, and it’s really easy to tell someone else not to do it, but we’ve done it, and we’ve learned from it. It’s the same thing as sending emails when you’re mad. We can all understand the action of reacting in emotion and later realizing that wasn’t the right thing to do.

“As a manager, if one of my subordinates did that, I’m going to tell my story and say, ‘Listen, I completely understand. I have been in positions where I had this emotion and I sent this email while I was mad, and I felt so much better, but all I really did was just discharge emotions. It didn’t resolve anything because then the other person just shut down.’ What really matters is the relationships, so that if something like this does happen, we don’t overanalyze those emails and what people say.”

The wrong way for creating empathy in the workplace? Faking it, because if it’s not genuine, people will know, and you’ll lose their trust and loyalty.

Nino plans to share her best practices for creating and maintaining an empathic workplace culture during the upcoming Disrupt Madison 4.0, Wednesday, June 5, at the Sylvee.

Among the lessons she’s learned: Empathy takes practice.

“The biggest thing about emotional intelligence is empathy, so if this isn’t something that you’re naturally good at,” explains Nino, “then get five books on it and read those five books. Maybe follow some new stuff on social media, like some empathy pages or things that start to train your brain to care about those things. It has to be a daily practice. Like, you can’t go to one yoga class and say, ‘I do yoga now.’ It doesn’t work like that.”

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