Empathy in action, and how to apply it in the workplace - Dignify
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Empathy in action, and how to apply it in the workplace

Wednesday, July 3, 2024 - Joe Kiedinger

I’ve recently been working at a construction project out in Phoenix, and something happened that really reinforced one of my longest-held beliefs – that empathy is one of the most important elements to good leadership and good communication. I wanted to sit down for a bit and write about it because of how impactful it was to watch and how much it changed things for the better at this site.

Empathy in action

This site is a massive undertaking, with tradesmen from all different kinds of contractors from around the country coming together to build it up. There are steel workers, concrete workers, any kind of tradesman that you could possibly imagine is working there. Over at the site, there is also a general contractor, and their job is to supply a safety manager to educate people at all levels and ensure that safety remains the number one priority.

The person they supplied is very good and extremely detailed in his work. The passion he displayed was unmatched, and he tried everything in his power to make sure that he knew everything that was going on at the site in detail so that he could ensure full spectrum compliance with safety regulations.

During a project alignment meeting with all of the other leaders on the site, it came to light that a wall was installed in the wrong place, and that a team had to tear it down and move it after they realized it. There would be no problem normally, but in this particular case, this was the first time that the safety manager had learned about it. He wasn’t told about what happened, he hadn’t seen it, and so he had no idea about it.

The safety manager got very emotional about it and reinforced to everyone in the meeting the importance of following safety protocols. You could tell that his emotions had been altered and that he wasn’t taking the news very well, even though the problem had been rectified almost immediately.

In this moment, something beautiful happened. Instead of pushing back against him or invalidating what he was feeling, the other leaders leaned into the conversation and got curious. They expressed their appreciation for the passion he displays in his work and asked him why he was so emotional in this moment.

The safety manager opened up with this long story about why he was the way he was. He explained that 10 years prior, he was involved in safety management at a job site, and someone failed to follow protocol and installed a fence around a 10-foot-deep hole. The next morning, they came to the site and found that there were five young boys that got trapped in it overnight and had no way of getting out. Thankfully, the boys were rescued, but only 10 hours after it happened. As a result, the safety manager vowed to never allow that to happen again and adopted an extremely detail-oriented and impassioned approach to his work.

Every other leader at the table understood immediately. You could hear a pin drop in the room. From then on, they made a point to ensure that they kept the safety manager up to date with as much as they possibly could.

The thing is empathy starts with understanding and acceptance. You have the power to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and understand where they come from and why they are the way they are. The leaders at the site put this into practice with flying colors. They chose to listen, understand, and accommodate instead of reacting negatively to the safety manager’s emotions or conjuring up false narratives about him in their head.

As a result of this conversation, safety at that site became better than ever because everyone enabled him with the information, he needed to do his job. The other leaders didn’t hesitate to do so, because they understood the purpose and intent behind what he was doing. Everyone in or around the job site benefitted from this conversation – they all got safer.

Applying empathy

Empathy is one of those transferrable skills that can be applied anywhere, to any situation, in any context. All it takes is the desire to understand. Instead of reacting with the first thought or emotion that comes to your mind, follow in the footsteps of the leaders I mentioned and start asking questions. Ask things like:

  • Can you walk me through that?
  • What did you mean by that?
  • The story I’m making up is X, can you tell me what it really is?
  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • What do you need from me?

It all starts with understanding. Understanding creates empathy, empathy creates great communication, great communication creates high-performing teams, and high-performing teams create world-class organizations. To truly understand the people around you, you need to know their dignity. Under normal circumstances, understanding someone enough to know their dignity is difficult – many people only reach this point with their closest friends and family. However, Dignify simplifies the process and makes it enjoyable so that anybody can get to know each other’s dignity with a few clicks and some conversation. Let’s get empathetic in the workplace – just one act of empathy can improve things for an entire organization.

JOE KIEDINGER

ACTION PLAN: Take the first step to understand who your team members are and building the foundation for empathetic leadership with Dignify.


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