If we look at the surprising link between the pandemic, empathy and happiness at work, leaders may be able to improve their team’s morale through simple shifts over time. And in so doing increase staff productivity and engagement without ignoring the state of the current global environment.
COVID-19, pandemic-related mental fatigue, remote work, zoom calls and isolation. These are words that have become part of our everyday experience, and in fact, the global pandemic has changed workplaces and entire economies in ways we would not have believed if it were told to us merely 2 years ago. Along with that, lockdowns, curfews, and varying levels of restriction are affecting how we live and work, making it difficult for leaders to achieve company goals and help their teams maintain their level of productivity.
Vistage International, a peer-to-peer organisation for CEOs, released a report highlighting the biggest challenges currently facing CEOs as they navigate business growth and employee engagement during a global pandemic. They found that 80% of businesses experienced a decrease in revenue in 2020, that the uncertainty around the length of the pandemic and the direction of the global economy was taking its toll on leaders, and that keeping employees productive and engaged in a remote work environment was proving to be a tremendous challenge. These facts are indicative of a stressed workforce, and leaders who are struggling to keep them motivated and productive, ultimately resulting in a lack of happiness in the workplace. But how does happiness work? And can a leader really increase the level of happiness in their team? For those in uniform at the office, and also those in their hoodies and slippers, working from home and can a leader increase the level of happiness in their team?
How happiness works
As humans, we actively seek out experiences that will create enjoyable emotions. However, the way we do that will differ from one person to another, and from one season of life to the next. In the current season we are facing, our ability to experience enjoyable emotions, or happiness, is heavily affected by the fact that we are wired to pay more attention to negative harmful messages than positive ones.
Think of a field that is ready for planting a crop. The soil is fertile, the ground has been loosened. The conditions are perfect – whatever you plant will grow. If you plant maize you are going to grow good healthy maize, but if you plant weeds, you are going to grow some very strong weeds.
Now imagine that “field” is actually your mind. If you plant positive messages, you’ll become positive. But if you plant negative messages, you’ll become more and more negative. Just like with the field, we can choose what we do or don’t allow to be planted in the fertile soil of our subconscious minds.
But what if we had a field of wheat with weeds all over the place? There’s something about weeds that makes them choke the actual plants we are trying to grow. And just like that, the mind puts a priority on negative thinking. So what can leaders do in the face of stress, lack of productivity and continued uncertainty causing more and more negativity in the minds of their employees?
In the current season we are facing, our ability to experience enjoyable emotions, or happiness, is heavily affected by the fact that we are wired to pay more attention to negative harmful messages than positive messages.
Well, first we should take into consideration that happiness is a contagious social phenomenon (Ekman 2004). The most reliable indicator of our happiness, is the happiness of others in close proximity to us, that we have a relationship with. We are influenced and have the power to influence others, with happiness. (Fredrickson, 2001; K.L. Johnson & Fredrickson, 2005). This is good news for leaders seeking to increase productivity and happiness in the workplace.
The implication here is that a leader can increase the number of positive messages their team is receiving by implementing techniques like Ken Blanchard’s “Giving Praise” technique, which you learn as a part of the Mygrow journey, thereby circumventing the negative messages they are receiving daily, which affects their morale and ability to be productive.
However, some Psychologists are concerned that glorifying happiness can lead to unhealthy ways of responding to negative emotion – avoiding it or pushing it away. (McGuirk, Kuppens, Kingston, Bastian, 2017). So it is important for leaders to acknowledge the reality of what their teams, and in fact, the challenges they themselves are facing while working on techniques to increase positive emotion and the level of happiness at work.
The power of empathy
This practice of acknowledging the current collective reality brought on by the global pandemic can be amplified by a leader’s ability to be empathetic.
Empathy is understanding, recognising, and appreciating how other people feel. Empathy also involves being able to articulate your understanding of another’s perspective and behaving in a way that respects and validates others’ feelings.
A key player in psychology around empathy is Carl Rogers who developed something called Person-Centred Therapy. Essentially this approach involves genuinely and deeply engaging with and accepting a person unconditionally through empathetic understanding. This process and the skills involved in doing this lead to a significant connection between people such that it caused deep understanding and healing for individuals. It is based on the belief that empathy is the ability to accurately see and understand the frame of reference that someone has – their meanings and emotional components. (Rogers, 1951).
It is important for leaders to acknowledge the reality of what their teams are facing.
Therefore when leaders develop and practise empathy, they cultivate a strong connection with their team as they listen with their eyes, their emotions, their words and their ears.
Notably, a study assessing teams at Google found that in the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs. In other words, the best teams have empathy (Charles Duhigg, 2016).
Happiness and the Power of Empathy in a Pandemic
With that said, here’s the surprising link between the pandemic, empathy and happiness at work. The “Giving Praise” technique referred to previously, not only increases the positive feelings of the one receiving the praise but also requires empathy as it goes beyond simply giving your team member a compliment.
The technique requires you to apply a four-step process of telling the person what they did correctly, telling them why it is important, engaging in their response to what you are saying, and encouraging them to keep on doing it. This moves us beyond the mere platitudes of giving someone a compliment, but requires you to engage on an emotional level as a leader, giving thought to the context within which the praiseworthy action took place, and using reflection and empathy to make the message you are relaying more meaningful.
When leaders develop and practise empathy, they cultivate a strong connection with their team as they listen with their eyes, their emotions, their words and their ears.
Think about how impactful it would be if this was exercised in the context of the current stress your teams are under. What if leaders were able to catch their team members doing something good, and highlighted that good thing while making mention of the fact that they realise it’s difficult for people to work from home for example, or perhaps acknowledging the loss of a loved one due to the pandemic. The message you send as a leader in this instance is: yes, there are challenges and there is pain, but you are still valued and have contributed positively to the team. This kind of positive yet empathetic feedback, though not burdensome to apply, can boost overall morale and productivity in the workplace.
So, as leaders develop their Emotional Intelligence, they can combine the power of empathy and the science of happiness to improve their team’s productivity and happiness at work, without overly glorifying positive emotion, especially as we continue to face the challenges of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Are your people feeling disempowered to influence positive change in their relationships, workplaces, and local communities because of the sheer magnitude of the impact the pandemic has had on them? Mygrow has developed the Mygrow Pandemic Fatigue Toolkit that will help you unlock your team from feeling disempowered, by accessing the power of the human imagination.