Empathy as Company Culture
The definition of empathy, according to the 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Report, is the ability to understand and experience the feelings of another. Additionally, it states that empathy continues to be not only a fundamental need at a human level but a business imperative that leads to a tangible bottom-line impact.
Empathy became an imperative at Solana when Doug Nafziger, Solana CEO, began to look at the company’s product lineup for the coming years (Solana was recently acquired by Sandata). Drawing on his personal experience coaching startup teams he realized there was a common thread in their innovation: empathy for the customer. Solana had already been doing that in its customer service, but why not ensure it was a priority throughout the company?
It was at that point that diversity and inclusion training with Diana Patton, Founder of RISE, pivoted to a broader take on empathy. Group sessions and 1:1 coaching in self-awareness and self-management has built more confidence in being vulnerable. Opening up and knowing it will be met with empathy and not judgement has helped company-wide in communication and innovation.
Empathy for Company Growth
Since implementing empathy training for everyone within the company, Nafziger notes that an already good rating on employee satisfaction has gone up. The process of getting products to market moves faster and is done so with more thought. And, most measurably, growth in the company. Looking into the future, the move to prioritize empathy will also bode well for employee attraction and retention.
“Empathy is a soft skill that has real outcomes when practiced. Leaders need to embrace empathy as an investment just as they do as capital expenditures and equipment,” said Nafziger. “That’s to say, I haven’t always felt this way because traditional business training teaches you to use calculations to determine risk. But I have realized that empathy is one of the most valuable tools to have, if you are willing to have the vulnerability to practice it alongside other, more familiar business practices.”
Having created this rapport before the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the opportunity for Nafziger to take on the role of Chief Communicator through the crisis. He writes letters to the team on a weekly basis to offer trust, compassion, stability, and hope; the universal employee needs as defined by Gallup. This has helped the attitude of the Solana team tremendously, knowing that they are part of a greater good yet matter as an individual.
“Our team is incredibly comfortable in their performance during the pandemic,” said Nafziger. “We’re not going to be returning to normal, we’ll return to ‘better’.”
Challenges to Making the Shift
“Empathy has been an imperative for a long time but most businesses haven’t taken it seriously,” said Patton, knowing that the ability to truly connect with people doesn’t come easy. However, she feels employees’ mental health is paramount. “If the employees at Solana feel motivated and inspired, if they have a sense of inclusion, they are going to help Solana be better,” she explained.
The barrier to the change is often in leadership, authenticity, and time. The first move is making it clear that all people in the company have permission to feel. It will allow them to see themselves and others for who they truly are; and then identify how to meet needs. It requires having difficult but honest conversations around subjects that might normally be left unaddressed such as missed project deadlines or performance issues. However, if done well, it can foster personal growth. With that, encouragement and teamwork take on new meaning, helping an individual rise to the next level. Before long, the practice moves outside of company boundaries and extends to customers who also receive an elevated level of service and value. It takes time to let it fall into place.
Making the change a mandate could be a complete turn-off, as could expectations of behavior that are not modeled by leadership. If it’s not a practice before a crisis, there is no guarantee that it will be a two-way street during a crisis, perhaps leaving leadership feeling left in a lurch. And even so, leaders should be in such a position to support their employees without an expectation that the same support will be directed upward to them.