Empathizing with diversity builds inclusion in the workplace
April 11, 2019
As a leadership coach working with highly diverse clients, it seems imperative that we focus on inclusion and empathy in order to draw out the diverse talent and intelligence from all employees. Having coached people through gender identity struggles and offered empathetic affect and validation for their journey, I see their growth, joy and confidence soar when we see them more for who they are and embrace their whole self through an expanded lens.
A whole, stable employee, regardless of race or gender, is healthier and more positively influential at work than one who is struggling to emotionally stabilize. In 2003, it was found that mental and emotional instability and illness cost more than $200 billion in losses for U.S. businesses each year. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine addressed this national pain point well in its 2018 public health summit.
The business world and our society as a whole is awakening to empathy, compassion and soft skills. This is good news, yet historical focusing on hard skills has taken a toll. While employees can’t be so emotionally focused that they can’t do their job, they also shouldn’t be expected to check parts of themselves at the door of their workplace.
I see focusing on emotional intelligence (EI) as an overdue revolution. As an industrialized nation, we’ve been performance-based, academically crazed, highly religious, cognitively saturated and emotionally dismissive. On the other hand, while promoting sexually explicit marketing and being increasingly materialistic and virtual, we seem to have lost the most important virtue of all: recognition of the value of unique identity.
Every day in my own work, I witness workers’ capacity to move toward a confident self-model as we apply empathy, understanding and self-discovery tools to reverse the onset of more serious mental health disorders. Interpersonally, this is called affect regulation. In layman’s’ terms, it can be thought of as resonating with the state of mind of an employee. As Daniel Goleman and other EI experts know, being empathetically responsive shifts people from stress circuits in the brain to higher, relationally effective circuits in the brain for thinking outside the box and attaining better results.
Eyes of empathy see uniqueness and make real contact on a level well beyond performance and gender.
Resonance, or affect regulation, works to increase security and stability regardless of race or gender. Empathizing with a person’s pain points and the many ways they desperately need inclusion for unseen, relevant identity traits is crucial in promoting and reflecting a true self-model. Seeing themselves in the eyes of others as relatable, especially for traits less seen yet highly sensitive, promotes the soft skills they need for future leadership.
Reversing damage that stems from a lack of empathy isn’t difficult with the right tools for discovering fear points and self-model differences. I can be with two identifying males of the same culture, financial status, business, family and/or religion who don’t “see” each other empathetically at all. Misinterpreting each other socially and emotionally derails connection and collaboration. Tools to identify diversity and repair disconnection save workplace outcomes.
One example recently was with someone who was a fast processor, talker and thinker who offended a cautious, careful, slow processor. The first felt frustrated while the second felt left behind, unimportant and unheard. This diversity led to lost collaboration, ongoing misunderstanding, competition, tension, avoidance and aggression. When we met, we used tools to create a lens for their own unique identity, implicit thoughts and predispositions. They quickly developed deeper self-competency, cleared the lens through which they saw each other and felt comfortable with this diversity.
Diversity is never “slight” when it causes a misunderstanding that turns into annoyance, uncertainty or fear. Uncertainty increases stress chemicals. Stress can overload the brain, reducing outcomes both at work and at home. Understanding elicits anti-stress chemicals, fortifying higher brain regions.
As people gain self-awareness on this level, they gain experience in being felt and learn to feel the state of mind of others. They recognize their own stress early on, regulate it faster and pick up on the stress of others, thereby making the most of collaboration while stress is minimal and less threatening.
In another case, one co-worker handled early feelings of stress by getting silly and comical. The other co-worker personalized this as abandonment and unimportance. When co-worker No. 1 realized how co-worker No. 2 interpreted their nervousness, they took responsibility for their impact on co-worker No. 2. Co-worker No. 2 also gained a deeper understanding of co-worker No. 1’s diverse ways of handling stress and took responsibility to tune into it and support them rather than taking it personally.
Now, they no longer lose time due to stress, and, in fact, they use stress productively and build security as a team. Outcomes are increased when tools for empathy and self-competency are provided for inclusion of diversity.
Where gender identity comes into play, people who identify as empathetic and viable workers will boost others’ productivity and experience satisfaction and significance on a whole new level. They simply respect others for who they uniquely are. I have empathized intently through stories of hidden selves who were pained with fear that others would misunderstand, scorn and reject them. I have seen tears from someone trying to be something they aren’t while feeling unknown and alone with colleagues or leaders who claim to care. Indeed, they intend to, they just need a new lens to relate.
While leaders aren’t expected to be therapists, they can be inclusive of their employees’ diversity and influence their health and wellness in the workplace.
By Sharon A. Kuhn