Why empathetic leadership is vital for the success of diversity and inclusion initiatives

HR leader, confident female business leader

Article by Dr Shirley Knowles, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, Progress and Katie Kulikoski, Chief People Officer, Progress

Empathy is a critical component to creating a positive, successful workplace culture which embraces diversity.

Once seen as a marker of an outstanding leader, empathetic management is now a fundamental expectation. Business leaders must be able to understand the needs of others and to consider their perspectives when making business decisions.

This is partly due to the impact of workplace empathy on diversity and inclusion initiatives –  50% of employees with empathetic leaders state that their workplace is inclusive, compared to just 17% of those with less empathetic leadership.

So how can leaders ensure that they are utilising empathy to boost their diversity and inclusion efforts?

Slowing down your thinking

A crucial first step is to understand that you may have to challenge your own thoughts and mindset in order to bring empathy into your day to day work. 

To illustrate this, it’s helpful to use the model of system 1 and system 2 thinking, made popular by Daniel Kahremah. System 1 thinking is our brain’s fast, automatic and emotional responses to stimuli. It’s at this level that bias often creeps in – we make split second judgements about people based on characteristics such as their race, gender or age. System 2 thinking is slower and more deliberate. It’s here that we use logic and reasoning to solve problems. 

Many of us are guilty of letting system 1 thinking influence too many of our decisions. It’s important that leaders try to slow down and challenge those automatic assumptions. Taking the time to think logically will allow them to remember the perspective of others, rather than making decisions based on those initial judgements.

Learning to listen

In order to consider the perspective of others when making decisions, you must find out what those perspectives actually are. There is one simple way to learn them: listen.

At Progress, we’ve hosted listening tours with employees from all across the globe. Sessions are kept small to ensure that everyone there is comfortable, and feedback is passed on anonymously. This allows us to ensure that our leadership team is kept well informed of the needs and desires of our workforce, and to incorporate that into their leadership styles.

Generating feedback in this way is incredibly valuable, but listening can also occur on a much smaller scale. On a day to day basis, simply taking the time to talk and truly listen to others will offer huge insights into their lived experiences. Within any organisation there will be people dealing with huge challenges, both in the workplace and in their personal lives. Understanding these is the first step in creating a workplace culture that serves everyone. Afterall, how can any company expect its diversity and inclusion efforts to be successful if they aren’t able to identify the unique challenges within their organisation?

Success is rooted in action

Whilst increasing empathy is important, there must also be a focus on outcomes. Leaders who have learned about their workforce’s perspectives should ensure that they are actively using this knowledge to drive change. Employees want to see that their feedback is driving meaningful action.

Ask yourself: what programmes have been created based on the feedback given? What support is now offered as a result of conversations with staff? How has my leadership style altered to better serve the needs of the staff in my organisation? 

By both taking the time to slow down and really understand the needs and perspectives of staff, and then ensuring that those insights are turned into real change, leaders are setting themselves up for the best chance of success in building a positive and inclusive workplace.

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