Q&A: Empathy and Compassion in Leadership with Vithika Tiwari

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This week we’re in conversation with Vithika Tiwari, People Business Partner, Cardekho. We talk about the importance of Empathy and Upward Feedback in Organisations.

The interview is edited for length and clarity.

Q- Why do you think empathy is important in leadership and what are all the challenges leaders are facing today and what are the challenges employees are facing today?

Empathy plays a crucial role in leadership, particularly in the post-COVID era. Being an empathetic leader is essential for success because it demonstrates genuine concern for team members and their perspectives. True leadership involves stepping into their shoes, understanding their challenges, and showing support. Without empathy, leaders may struggle to establish trust and connection with their teams.

In organizations lacking empathy, the attrition rate tends to be high, as employees do not feel comfortable approaching their managers with their concerns or issues. When employees don't trust their managers enough to share their thoughts openly, it indicates a problem within the team dynamics. For instance, if an employee expresses a desire to transition to a different role but the manager lacks empathy and fails to understand their perspective, it can result in a breakdown of trust. Such situations can lead to high turnover rates and poor communication within the team.

In the current landscape, leaders face several challenges. One of the significant challenges is managing remote teams and maintaining effective communication and collaboration in a virtual environment. Remote work can create feelings of isolation and disconnection, making it crucial for leaders to find ways to foster engagement and connection among team members.

Additionally, the rapid pace of technological advancements presents challenges in keeping up with digital transformations and ensuring that teams have the necessary skills to adapt to new technologies. Balancing work-life integration is another challenge, as the boundaries between personal and professional lives become blurred. This is leading to burnout and decreased productivity. Leaders must promote work-life balance and support their employees' well-being.

Employees also encounter various challenges in today's workplace. Remote work can create feelings of isolation and hinder opportunities for casual interactions and relationship-building. Additionally, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and managing stress and burnout while working remotely can be challenging, as boundaries between work and personal life become less defined.

Inclusion and diversity remain important challenges as well. Organizations strive to create inclusive environments where employees from diverse backgrounds feel valued and heard. Ensuring equal opportunities and addressing biases and discrimination is crucial for fostering a positive work environment. Lastly, continuous learning and upskilling are essential for employees to stay relevant in rapidly evolving industries and job markets.

Overall, leaders must navigate the challenges of remote work, technological advancements, work-life integration, and team dynamics while demonstrating empathy and addressing the concerns of their employees. By fostering empathy and understanding, leaders can create a supportive environment that promotes trust, collaboration, and employee well-being.

Q- How do you figure out if a Manager is empathetic or not?

Identifying Managerial Traits and Issues

When it comes to identifying traits and potential issues with a manager, it is crucial to follow specific steps. Firstly, connecting with employees is essential. Conducting pulse surveys at regular intervals allows for comparisons and helps determine improvements in areas such as recognition towards managers. As an HR VP, building trust with employees is of utmost importance. Without trust, employees may not feel comfortable sharing their concerns. If employees approach me, indicating that the manager or team leader is causing exits, it becomes a problem that demands action. Thus, passing on accurate feedback to managers is vital.

Delivering Feedback Effectively

When providing feedback to managers, it is noteworthy that some managers receive it positively. They understand that the organization aims to help them improve certain traits, viewing feedback as beneficial in the long run. However, there are also managers who become defensive when receiving feedback. As an HR professional, it is crucial to communicate feedback appropriately and explain its significance. Throughout my six years in this field, I have observed defensive mechanisms in managers who want to be told how to manage their teams better. In such cases, it is important to paint a clear picture and emphasize the potential consequences if no action is taken. Encouraging managers to gradually improve and connect with their teams is vital.

The Role of Communication and Active Listening

Effective leadership entails proactive thinking and top-to-bottom communication. Overcommunication can be valuable, as it ensures that individuals understand the purpose behind their actions within the organization. Often, employees are unsure of why they are required to perform certain tasks. Leaders should recognize the importance of clarifying the "why" behind their instructions.

Furthermore, active listening is crucial for empathetic leaders. Merely listening for the sake of it is insufficient; leaders must actively engage with employees' perspectives. Even if a leader disagrees, it is essential to at least understand the employee's viewpoint. Frequently, employees may suggest policy changes or express concerns that may not be immediately visible to leaders. In such situations, empathetic leaders can provide a listening ear and offer reassurance.

Moving from Empathy to Compassion

At this point, the discussion turns to whether it is necessary to move beyond empathy and embrace compassion. Indeed, it is crucial for organizations to progress towards compassion. However, it is not advisable for organizations to make a sudden leap from empathy to compassion without addressing the challenges that may arise.

Transitioning to a compassionate organization requires action aligned with empathetic values. Simply talking about compassion is not enough; it must be accompanied by tangible actions. Although moving towards compassion poses certain difficulties, it is still essential to prioritize taking steps towards acting on empathy.

Q- Do you think at this point, we need to move beyond empathy to compassion, not to just talk about things but also act on them?

Moving beyond empathy to compassion is indeed important in leadership. While empathy allows leaders to understand and relate to their team members' experiences and challenges, compassion takes it a step further by actively helping and supporting them. It's not just about talking or empathizing; it's about taking action and showing genuine care.

However, transitioning from empathy to compassion can pose certain challenges. One common challenge is decision-making. Empathetic leaders may sometimes struggle to make tough decisions because they get caught up in the emotions and personal circumstances of their team members. It's important to find a balance between understanding and supporting employees while also ensuring that the work is being carried out effectively.

An example is when a manager faces difficulties in handling an employee's performance after a significant personal event, such as a health issue or surgery. While it's essential to provide support and empathy during difficult time, there comes a point where the employee needs to resume their responsibilities and perform their duties effectively. Striking a balance between empathy and maintaining work expectations can be a challenge for leaders.

Compassion goes beyond empathy by actively helping employees navigate through challenging situations, such as returning from maternity leave or sabbaticals. It involves being flexible and accommodating their needs, such as offering remote work options or adjusting schedules. This approach acknowledges the individual circumstances of employees and demonstrates a commitment to their well-being.

However, it's crucial for managers to communicate clearly with their teams and align expectations. Some managers may use HR policies as an excuse for not providing the desired flexibility, without even discussing it with the HR department. Open communication and collaboration between managers and HR are essential to ensure that employee needs are properly addressed.

Organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of flexibility and support for employee well-being, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Health issues, including mental wellness, are now taken more seriously, and leaders are realizing the impact on employee performance and overall organizational success. It's crucial to create an environment where employees feel supported and can prioritize their mental and physical well-being.

Ultimately, leaders should understand that employees are human beings with their own unique challenges. By enabling and aligning individual needs with company values, leaders can create a compassionate work culture that supports employee growth, engagement, and overall success.

Q- How to enable upward feedback in a wokrplace?

Enabling upward feedback in the workplace is crucial for fostering open communication and continuous improvement. Here are some steps that can be put in place to facilitate upward feedback:

1. Create a safe and anonymous feedback mechanism: Implement a system where employees can provide feedback on their managers anonymously. This ensures that employees feel comfortable expressing their opinions without fear of retribution.

2. Conduct feedback training: Train both managers and employees on the importance of feedback and how to provide constructive feedback. This training should emphasize the value of open dialogue and encourage respectful communication.

3. Set clear expectations and guidelines: Establish guidelines for providing feedback, such as focusing on specific behaviours or situations and offering ways and actions for improvement. Clearly communicate these expectations to employees and managers to ensure feedback is constructive and actionable.

4. Regular feedback cycles: Implement regular feedback cycles rather than relying solely on annual reviews. This could include quarterly or monthly check-ins, where employees have the opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns.

5. Foster a culture of open communication: Encourage open and honest communication throughout the organization. This can be achieved by promoting transparency, active listening, and valuing diverse perspectives. Managers should create a supportive environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their feedback and ideas.

6. One-on-one meetings: Encourage managers to have regular one-on-one meetings with their team members. These meetings provide a dedicated space for discussions, feedback, and addressing any concerns or disagreements.

7. Establish a feedback review process: Ensure that feedback is not just collected but also reviewed and acted upon. Managers should take the feedback seriously, reflect on it, and discuss it with their teams. They should identify areas for improvement and develop action plans accordingly.

8. Follow-up and accountability: Create a system of accountability to ensure that feedback is followed up on and progress is monitored. This can include periodic check-ins to assess if follow-ups on feedback and improvements have been made.

By implementing these structures and practices, organizations can create a culture of open feedback and continuous improvement. It empowers employees to voice their opinions, strengthens manager-employee relationships, and build a positive work environment.

Q- What extra steps can we take to enable uncomfortable conversations smoothly?

Leaders should set an example by demonstrating open communication, actively listening to their employees, and fostering an environment where trust is nurtured.

By prioritizing psychological safety, employees feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, concerns, and ideas without fear of negative consequences. This can be achieved by creating forums for open dialogue, such as team meetings, one-on-one sessions, or suggestion boxes, where employees can freely share their feedback and suggestions.

Leaders should also be receptive to feedback and willing to consider alternative perspectives. Holding opinions lightly and being open to experimentation and different approaches can lead to innovation and improved problem-solving within the team.

Additionally, regular communication channels, such as team updates, newsletters, or town hall meetings, can help keep employees informed about company developments, foster transparency, and provide opportunities for open discussion.

By consistently reinforcing these values and behaviours, organizations can build a culture where trust and communication thrive, leading to increased employee engagement, retention, and overall organizational success.

Do you work in HR? Email janhavi.jain@springworks.in and Let’a Talk!