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Empathy in action: A business imperative

24 February 2021

Seema Bains examines how empathy can be utilised to progress inclusion, by taking opportunities to listen and learn to develop our thinking.

At DWF, inclusion is at the heart of our culture and values. The ability to attract, retain and promote talent is a key driver in our strategy. We want our people to have a sense of belonging. In order to achieve this empathy is a business imperative.

Empathy is defined as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another". This was most aptly put by Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mocking Bird', "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it".

A particularly strong example of this was our response to the Black Lives Matter movement. The senseless killing of George Floyd saw mass protests globally. This event, unlike any other before, saw a shift in attitudes, but also a desire to effect change. Doing nothing and staying silent was no longer acceptable. What was immediately apparent was the desire of our people to want to talk about the event – how could we understand the experience of ethnic minorities? What lessons could we learn? How could we prevent this and other events like this happening again? What can we do as a collective to change the narrative?

More importantly, we wanted to support our ethnic minority colleagues and provide a platform for them to share their thoughts and feelings. We wanted to provide an opportunity for colleagues to share their lived experiences and the challenges they face both professionally and personally. Over listening sessions in each of our global locations people shared journeys and stories. The conversations were not easy, in many instances people shared some very difficult experiences. 

There were a number of learnings from the sessions. Those that shared their stories were grateful to have a platform to do so. Those that listened were humbled by what they heard but also commented that conversations about race could be uncomfortable and they were worried about saying the wrong thing. What was common across all of the sessions was empathy.

That is often not an easy concept or skill to demonstrate in a business context. The well intentioned phrase "I do not see colour" is something I have heard several times over the years. I must admit that early on in my career I did not give this much thought but when I heard this again more recently, I realised that is not a reality. In truth if we are to foster and nurture a diverse workforce and inclusive culture, the answer is empathy, to walk in the shoes of another, to look at things through the eyes of someone else, to actively listen. 

As a result of the learnings from our sessions we formulated an action plan and the Financial Times recognised DWF for its innovative approach for advancing race and ethnicity within the workplace. This is not just about a one off conversation following a horrific event. We want to continue the conversation and dialogue to effect systemic change in our sector and empathy is at the heart of this. 

Maya Angelou stated "I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it". The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement helped us find our courage but it is now up to all of us to turn empathy into action in our workplace, with our colleagues and in our everyday decisions.

Our next Brave New Law webinar will explore why empathy is a business imperative skill.

We will cover points including:

  • How bringing empathy to business discussions can create better outcomes for you and your business colleagues.
  • How to develop more empathy in yourself and your team.
  • Using empathy as a leader in a virtual workplace.
  • Empathy in working with outside suppliers.

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