- ‘Softening the Edge’ author discusses why creating listening organisations is no longer a choice
Mimi Nicklin, the best-selling author of Softening the Edge, as well as the Founder/Creative Chief Operating Officer (COO) of ad agency Freedm and a leading organisational consultant in Sri Lanka, not only believes in the importance of empathy in the workplace, but also sees it as a mandatory requirement.
In Softening the Edge, which was recently launched in Sri Lanka, Nicklin unpacks what organisational empathy is and how we use it. She also talks about what is known as the empathy deficit. “Over the last 30 years, we have lost 48% of our empathy. Empathy is the backbone of modern civilisation, so when we see it go down, we face a huge problem amongst us as human beings,” she said.
She added that she just signed a deal for her second book, which is going to be published outside the region. “Where Softening the Edge has created the ripple, the second book will give more data and evidence as to how people are doing it and what the impacts of that have been.”
While Softening the Edge as well as her next book will both be important to leaders, especially in Sri Lanka, Mimi Nicklin joined The Morning Brunch to talk about what empathy looks like in an organisation and why we need leaders who listen.
Empathy in the workplace
According to Nicklin, empathy is what connects us as people and makes us want to collaborate, work as a team, generate ideas, and run businesses.
“Empathy within an organisation is about understanding. It’s about perspective-taking,” she said, adding that many ask her if empathy is an emotion or emotional skillset – or worse, a soft skill. “I spend a lot of my time explaining that empathy is not a soft skill. It’s a hard skill. It’s hard to master. It’s hard to practise. It’s hard to maintain.”
She explained that the turbulent times we live in, not just in Sri Lanka, but across the globe, demand that leaders and human resource (HR) teams maintain a far closer understanding of their teams and what they need in order to thrive. Empathy is also needed to adapt to the generational shift within organisations. This especially applies to multi-generational workforces.
“This is the first time in history that we have four generations in some workplaces at once. And this we do see in Sri Lanka, because we have a lot of family-led businesses,” she went on to say.
Hierarchical organisational structures make understanding and listening much harder, especially as those at the lower levels feel like they don’t have a voice. “Perhaps they don’t feel like they have access to people that are decision-makers and can create change. Equally, those at the top are losing their sense of reality of what’s really going on in the workplace,” Nicklin said.
She went on to say that one of the important aspects about empathy is that it is self-effacing, where it is not about the leader, but about understanding the workforce and how they can be made to perform at their best.
Diversity and inclusion
According to Nicklin, segregation is created due to the lack of empathy. “When we have a lack of empathy, we see all of the ‘isms’ go up – racism, sexism, ageism, etc.”
As an example, she pointed out that a lack of empathy plays a role in those who secured work-from-home positions during the Covid-19 pandemic now being asked to come to work.
“Inclusion and diversity can’t only come from Colombo 7 or whoever is near your office. It has to come from the country as a whole. That’s what’s going to build and change our future; being able to include the diversity within our country.”
Thus, organisations that strive for diversity and inclusion must also be empathetic and listen to their workforce, she said.
Is empathy for women?
There is a belief that gender has something to do with empathy, but Nicklin was quick to address such misconceptions, saying there are no genetic or DNA-ingrained traits that show women have an ability to empathise more than men. She explained that empathy is a skillset that comes from the prefrontal cortex of our brain, so as humans, we are born with it, and as pro-social animals, we need it to survive.
“There is no scientific or physiological data that shows that women can empathise more than men. Equally, we do know that there are some female leaders who may find engagement and communication in the workforce more natural to them,” she said, adding that there is a belief that this is due to generational learning, as women have held households for generations.
“We need male leaders in Sri Lanka to understand that what we are talking about is a business skillset,” she said, adding that this is why she frames it in a way that male leaders can conceptualise and understand.
Author Mimi Nicklin
Benefits and impact
We asked Nicklin what the benefits of empathy in an organisation look like, especially from the business point of view. She explained that there are very few business indicators that are not impacted by high levels of empathy. A higher level of understanding in an organisation can lead to improved output per capita, performance per head, motivation and satisfaction levels, higher tenures, longevity, improved recommendations and word of mouth, and improved client relationships.
She stressed that the benefits are endless, as organisational empathy also improves the amount of intelligence, insight, and data that leaders have on the people they are talking to, whether employees or customers.
Nicklin went on to highlight that her catchphrase “what you measure, manifests” is relevant here.
“If you want an organisation that is more open to listening and encourages your line managers and all the people in your business to be listening-led, you need to measure them on it. It needs to be in your key performance indicators (KPIs); it needs to be in reviews.”
No longer a choice
Bringing our conversation to an end, Nicklin said that empathy in the workplace is no longer a choice. It is mandatory, since if a leader does not listen to their people, they would lose them. In the local context, Nicklin said, it can be an uncomfortable shift, but that it is important for an organisation’s people and business.
Sharing that we are all more alike than we are different, Nicklin added that the more we talk about empathy, the more empathy we will develop. So how have we come to a point where we need to push organisations to be more empathetic?
Nicklin explained that empathy has two great enemies; low time and high stress.
“There is data that shows that as we go up the leadership structure, we become less empathetic, and there is an assumption that this is because the more senior we get, the less we listen and the more we talk.”
Photo © Sassanda Liyanaarachchi