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The Importance of Empathy: How it Fuels Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Success

By now, it’s clear that when done correctly, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs can help drive positive organizational change, resulting in more innovation, happier, more engaged employees, and increased growth. But despite good intentions, some DEI programs fail to succeed from the start.

In some cases, these programs have enough initial support to get up and running, but long-term impacts like event development, employee engagement, and overall management are not well-planned. In addition, some leaders are quick to rush DEI programming without first evaluating their own biases and behaviors, which can create obstacles down the road.

According to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), to make progress on DEI, “Senior leaders first need to acknowledge societal inequities and recognize that, unintentionally, their organization isn’t a level playing field.” By doing so, an inclusive mindset can be established.

Enter empathy.

CCL believes that empathetic leadership means, “having the ability to understand the needs of others and being aware of their feelings and thoughts.” Empathy doesn’t mean that we have experienced the same situation, but rather, a connection to the emotion the other person is experiencing.

And it makes sense. When someone has had a completely different upbringing or set of experiences than our own, how can we adequately respond to their views, and how can we even listen effectively, unless we try to understand where they’re coming from? As leaders, it’s our job to listen first and act second.

Here are a few ways we can all practice leading with empathy.

Recognize Emotion in Others, Communicate it Back

Leading with empathy takes practice. No one gets it right 100% of the time. But if we take the time to work at it and learn from our mistakes, the end result will make us better leaders, more supportive colleagues and may even improve our personal relationships.

According to Shola Kaye, a Communication Consultant, “Being ‘good’ at empathy requires the ability to listen carefully so we understand what our colleague is going through, what they’re feeling. To help them feel acknowledged and listened to, we can then say back to them what we heard, with a simple question such as ‘so you’re feeling angry and frustrated?’ Once they’re comfortable that we have truly understood their feelings we can then empathize, expressing concern. Finally we can ask if they need our support or help.”

Asking the right question, listening, and communicating back what you heard can help make these conversations easier. You’ll be able to create a safe space for vulnerability to exist, and hopefully, that will result in a more inclusive culture.

Create Culture Leaders & Accountability

If you spend even a few minutes a day on social media, you know that influencers rule everything. The same logic and rules can be applied to office culture. Having a group of dedicated culture leaders to help promote empathy and ultimately accountability, can enable teams to ensure it becomes part of the cultural fabric.

In the piece titled, “Making Empathy Central to Your Company Culture,” author Jamil Zaki said, “To build empathic cultures, leaders can begin by identifying connectors, and recruiting them for help championing the cause. This not only increases the likelihood that new ideals will “take,” it also allows employees to be recognized for connecting with others — highlighting another positive social norm at the same time.”

Building connections, creating safe spaces, and giving others a platform to discuss their successes, failures, challenges, etc. can result in stronger, more empathetic relationships at work (and even outside of work). As leaders, it's our responsibility to learn, grow, and develop away from bias and headfirst into diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Understanding empathy and then applying it to our own daily lives can truly have a net positive ripple effect to those around us. It's also important to keep these conversations going, so please feel free to share how your organizations or teams are focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion.