Too emotional: Why we need empathy in business

The vast majority of women will at some point have been told that they’re “too emotional” in the workplace for expressing feelings or asserting their opinion.

Being told you’re not eligible for promotion or leadership roles because you’re emotional is annoying enough, but for women hearing this whilst watching male colleagues rise up the ranks as their aggressive and argumentative behaviour is labelled as “assertive”, it’s downright infuriating.  

A study of 1,000 360-degree feedback reports on female executives in the US found that when women voice an opinion contrary to that of the majority, they are described as “too emotional”. Certainly it seems that women are more in touch with their emotions than men – 41 per cent of women have cried at work at some point, compared to only nine per cent of men. This could have something to do with the fact that women have six times more prolactin in their system than men, which is the hormone that induces tears. Not to mention the fact that they are not taught to supress their emotions in the same way that men are.

The value of emotions

However, at the heart of the “you’re too emotional” accusation is the idea that emotions are bad and have no place in business. Yet there is evidence that emotions, empathy in particular, are good for business.

Empathy is vital for understanding your customers’ pain points and how you can solve them, as well as making us better at more general problem-solving and innovation. It’s important for understanding your staff’s development needs and motivating your team. A dose of empathy in some male managers would also probably save a few businesses substantial sums in harassment claims.

James Allworth says empathy was the most important thing he learned at Harvard Business School, and warns that companies who can’t use this skill to understand their customers and competitors will be disrupted out of business. Emotions like humour and surprise also boost our productivity and can enhance collaboration in meetings.

Read: Getting to the heart of understanding others

The negative effects of suppressing emotions

Stifling our feelings, on the other hand, does us no good at all, and the traditional forceful corporate culture of “manning up” creates a negative atmosphere that damages productivity.

There has been a great deal of discussion recently about how discouraging men from showing or discussing their feelings makes them less likely to seek help for mental health issues, contributing to the fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. In fact, 98 per cent of men have been told to “man up” at some point in their lives. Not only is this harming their wellbeing, but if they don’t feel able to ask for help in the workplace then they’re also missing out on opportunities for self-development and improvement. Suppressing emotions also makes individuals more aggressive towards others, damaging their relationships with their colleagues and the productivity of the team as a whole.

Above all else, the people who feel emotional about their jobs are the ones who really care. Supporting your team to harness and channel those emotions and allowing them an outlet, rather than repressing or criticising them, will keep them engaged and motivated, and make them want to continue working with you for a long time to come.

Fostering empathy

So how can business leaders improve their empathy and emotional intelligence?

Evidence suggests that participating in role-playing games boosts your empathic abilities, so those team-building days are more valuable than you thought. Getting your team to put themselves into someone else’s shoes boosts their ability to see things from different perspectives.

Fostering listening skills is vital. Active listening is one of the most underrated, and under-developed, skills in business. As naturally selfish beings with low attention spans, we often spend conversations waiting for our turn to talk and being distracted by things around us rather than giving our full attention to the other person.

Being fully present with other people not only helps to build empathy, it also considerably improves the other person’s experience of the conversation. That means better employee retention, and therefore lower recruitment costs, and higher retention rates of customers, which means greater profits.

Showing you care about your customers is also good for your bottom line. A company that demonstrates a personal interest in us – by giving us a voucher on our birthday, sending us a free gift at a key milestone, or just asking how we are during a face-to-face interaction – is not only more likely to keep our business, it will also encourage us to make recommendations to friends and family. Even simply drawing a smiley face on a receipt increases tips for waiting staff by 20 per cent.

Emotional intelligence is vital for selling to clients and building business relationships, as well as nurturing your team. So let’s stop labelling emotions as “feminine” responses, and nurture them in both male and female staff so that we can channel them into positive energy to fuel our businesses.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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