Elevate the Morale in Your Organization
Practice empathy to strengthen staff loyalty, increase productivity, and improve patient outcomes.
Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s feelings. Demonstrating empathy involves being aware of and sensitive to the people around you. Successful leaders can use it to attain influence in their organization, build their teams, and gain productivity and improved collaboration in their practices, explained Rhonda Buckholtz, CPC, CDEO, CPMA, CRC, CENTC, CGSC, COBGC, COPC, CPEDC, AAPC Approved Instructor, at HEALTHCON 2021 in Dallas, Texas.
The key to growing and building critical relationships and not damaging them, according to Buckholtz, is to practice and master empathy. This involves embracing the fact that everybody is different and caring enough to understand what they’re about. In her presentation, “Start With Empathy: How Practicing Empathy Can Elevate and Improve Organizational Productivity,” Buckholtz helped healthcare business professionals better understand what that entails and how empathy can help them build a stronger leadership role. In case you missed the session or (gasp) missed HEALTHCON National or the Regional in Charleston, S.C., last year, here’s a recap of the session.
Compassion Goes a Long Way
Empathy does not always come naturally when you’re in leadership. For many leaders, it’s something they have to work hard on over time. Often when we listen, we listen to speak and not to truly hear what someone else has said, which can be problematic. It leads to jumping to conclusions, cutting people off, and the other person feeling not heard. This is especially detrimental in the workplace because “when employees don’t feel like they have a voice or don’t feel like they’re being heard, that’s when they leave,” said Buckholtz. One of the main reasons people leave is the lack of trust and appreciation that they feel from their leaders; and the key to avoiding losing staff is being empathetic.
Companies have done research on empathy and what it can do in the workplace. Current and studies show that about 30 percent of organizations and practices nationwide have started empathy training because they understand there are many benefits that can be realized from integrating empathy concepts into their practices, including a more loyal staff and increased productivity.
It’s important to realize that “being able to practice empathy doesn’t make you are weak, it actually helps you build a stronger leadership role; it’s that universal team value that promotes your high commitment and your cooperation in the workplace,” said Buckholtz. She went on to say, “When you work from a position of empathy, you’ll find you can build trust much faster. Your staff will be more engaged because they feel like they have a voice.” This will boost participation. Employees are also going to be happier, and a happy staff is a more creative staff. Once you have built that trust and loyalty among your workforce, you will be able to get things done in a timely fashion.
Incorporate Empathy in the Workplace
Gaining the trust of your employees and providers involves proactive management practices: Teach active listening, encourage perspective-taking, and cultivate a culture of compassion. Recognize that practicing empathy requires a conscious effort to engage at every step. You have to ask questions and then truly listen to the responses. And while this may sound time intensive, the gains are worth the effort. It can really turn things around if you can learn how to get to know people and understand how they work and process information. Doing so will help you to figure out what motivates people and inspire positive job performance.
Whether you consciously recognize it or not, every time you meet someone, within seconds, you form a judgment of them. “And that’s why practicing empathy is so important,” said Buckholtz. “Because you judge everyone by where you came from. You don’t judge them by where they came from because you’ve not walked in their shoes, you have not lived their lives.” You need to understand that people are made up of more than what you see in front of you, which is why taking a step back and practicing empathy is crucial, especially with your employees.
One way to bridge this gap, according to Buckholtz, is through personality assessment. She finds it to be an invaluable tool that provides insight into what motivates a person and what they are best suited for. Plus, once you know someone’s personality style, you can tailor how you interact with them, better understand the position they take on matters, and employ techniques that can help you communicate in a manner that’s most effective for that person. Buckholtz pointed out that this works both ways — she gives a copy of her personality assessment to those she works with because she wants them to know how she processes things and what to expect from her.
Equally as important as performing personality assessments is knowing how to use that information to build relationships and gain trust, which is key to effective leadership. “When you look at those, it becomes easier to deal with someone,” she explained. “There’s no way that you can ever walk exactly in their shoes, but you can get to know them well enough to be able to understand what motivates them, what their fears are.” Learning those kinds of things helps you get to know what type of employee you’re working with and the best way to present things to them. You can begin to set expectations and optimize communication.
Successful Teambuilding Strategies
Leadership is about servitude and giving back, Buckholtz said. When you’re truly leading an organization, you’re serving others. You’re taking charge and trying to figure out how you can help other people accomplish their goals. “When you enable everybody else to be able to get their jobs done, at the end of the day, that serves your goals,” she explained.
Being an effective leader also requires team building. According to Buckholtz, you should employ the following strategies to best build your teams:
- Praise in public and coach in private. Learn how to listen without judging people and understand that everyone lives their life differently. That’s extremely important for getting your teams going. Buckholtz also suggests that you talk in private when you have issues with someone to build trust as you work things out.
- Handle conflicts with care. When you have disagreements in your office, ask people to explain what they think happened and what they heard because sometimes what is said isn’t what’s heard and vice versa. She went on to explain that “if you want to get past people’s defenses, you’ve got to be able to learn how to sit back and listen.”
- Have regular one-on-ones with your team members. Ask them to share their ideas and address any concerns. Buckholtz shared that she always makes sure to end her one-to-ones by asking her employees what’s bothering them. Inquiring what she can help with and how she can be of service lets them know she’s listening and that together they will work through any problems. At the end of the day, what your employees really want to know is that you’re there for them. That is what’s going to help you build your team.
- Rally the troops. To be a successful team leader, you have to get people behind you or they’re not going to follow your policies and procedures. “Once your employees start working with you, and they see that you’re actively engaged and working with them and building that team, you’ll be surprised at how many ideas will come out and how they’ll be able to fix things,” said Buckholtz.
- Get your employees to actively engage and uphold standards. Team members need to realize that there are set goals, and when they hit those goals, they’re going to be rewarded. To build a highly productive, effective team, you must not only work to gain trust, but also give employees a good set of standards and a normalized workplace where they can accomplish their goals.
- Celebrate the wins. People need to be recognized and feel valued. They need to know that you noticed their efforts. “And so, celebrate those little wins no matter how small they are,” advised Buckholtz.
Business success depends on empathetic leaders who are able to adapt to build on the strengths around them and relate to their environment, and you have to keep individuals in mind when you’re doing that. Failure often happens when you stop focusing on the person and instead only focus on your operations, Buckholtz warned.
Overcome Barriers to Empathy in Healthcare
In healthcare, there are several factors — high patient volume, lack of time, poor training— that make it hard to implement empathy. “One of the things that I’ve always tried to stress to my staff when I’ve worked with them is that what is routine to you is the first time for the patient. You always have to keep that in mind; you have to be empathetic to the patient,” said Buckholtz. “But when you’re forced to see a high volume of patients, that’s really hard to practice, so it’s actually something that you need a constant reminder of: How would you want to be treated if you were that patient?”
To overcome these challenges, you must teach communication skills in your practice. “If you have not done a session with your employees on empathy and working with each other and communicating, that is definitely something that you need to do,” Buckholtz advised. This is not only essential for communicating with employees, but also with patients, which, in turn, will help generate positive health results and increased compliance with treatment.
Learn more: Watch part of the HEALTHCON 2021 session where Buckholtz discusses factors that make it difficult to incorporate empathy in healthcare and what needs to be done to overcome those challenges in the digital version of Healthcare Business Monthly, available online when signed in to your My AAPC account.
Be Reflective, Proactive, Responsive, Adapting
Buckholtz concluded the session with thoughts from a leadership expert: “Michael Hyatt says if you’re going to be an effective leader, you have to be able to enter your follower’s world. In fact, if you are going to influence anyone or anything … you’re going to have to get really good at incarnational leadership — stepping outside of your own shoes and truly trying to live that moment in that other person’s shoes. In order to do that, an empathetic leader has to have the humility to set aside the attitude of, ‘I know more than you do,’ or the pride that says, ‘I don’t have time to listen to you.’ ‘I’m too busy.’ ‘I’m too important.’ That’s the only way that you can learn from anyone and get your team on the right thing.”
According to Hyatt, empathy is difficult to develop when you don’t try to see something from the other person’s perspective. You have to be more interested in the team than in yourself, Buckholtz explained. Know that when your team succeeds, it reflects on your leadership; everyone else’s success shows the abilities of what you’ve been able to do.
Bottom line, an effective leader has to be more concerned with learning about others and less focused on themselves. This requires being open and willing to suspend judgment, so that people can be authentic and honest. Buckholtz ended with a quote from Stephen Covey: “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative and solve your problems.”