People will work harder for bosses who understand their employees’ personal needs.

One Friday earlier this month, teachers at Allen Elementary School in Kansas were handed a folder on arrival at work. Inside were their new identities.

For a day, they would all play the part of someone on the verge of homelessness. One teacher had six children and a grandmother to take care of while Principal Molly Nespor was cast as someone with a criminal record, a pregnant wife and overdue rent.

Nespor and the staff at the school, where 85% of the children receive government assistance to pay for lunch, spent the next eight hours simulating the struggles of the people inside their folder. They faced losing their jobs, cars with insurmountable repair bills and sick spouses without medical insurance — while navigating the often demoralising maze of charities. Volunteers played the roles of representatives from social services organisations.

“I’ve been an educator for 27 years, and it was eye-opening for me,” Nespor said. “I feel like I’m an empathetic person, but to see what people go through, I think it changed us.”

These days, empathy — understanding others by putting yourself in their shoes — is a skill managers are expected to master.

Scores of research over the last decade shows people will work harder for bosses who understand their employees’ personal needs. Leaders who empathise with workers get more productivity out of their staff than those who crack the whip when the employees are having a tough time.

It wasn’t all that long ago that managers had no interest in a team member’s home life. Now, a good leader will give time off to the father with an ill child or the woman whose husband is having surgery. While the company may lose a worker for a couple days, there are long-term gains to be had in exchange.

“Empathy has become a contemporary idea of the way leaders ought to behave,” said Peter Gahan, professor and co-director of the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Melbourne. “We know now from a whole range of studies, where employers facilitate employee needs, it allows those companies to see great gains in productivity and loyalty.”

Big corporations of the 19th and 20th centuries didn’t see it that way. Workers were treated more akin to cogs and expected to perform in-step, regardless of outside pressures or concerns.

Research detailed in papers such as a 2007 report from the Center for Creative Leadership linking kindness to productivity has helped upend that concept. That’s right — workers across a wide range of professions performed better when bosses treated them nicely. Even in countries where bosses are held in higher esteem, in Southeast Asia, for example, empathy is given a high value.  In the region, bosses are often expected to care for workers in an almost parent-child relationship.

Not always easy

For managers who were brought up in the ‘take-no-prisoners’ business era, becoming softer isn’t always easy. It begins, Gahan said, with companies hiring and valuing managers with good interpersonal skills, people who will show empathy to their colleagues.

Then, for those managers and others who might be learning from them, it’s critical to get an understanding of an employee’s personal life. Mostly, that involves listening and staying in tune with changes in an employee’s behaviour.

That’s been proven at Barry-Wehmiller Companies in Missouri, which makes equipment for assembly lines and owns other businesses. The 7,000-employee firm puts great emphasis on creating a caring environment, something that’s not an easy concept to deliver considering many of its staff work on assembly lines.

Chief Executive Office Bob Chapman found himself inspired at a wedding, as he watched a friend walk his daughter down the aisle. “It occurred to me that every one of my employees is someone’s child,” Chapman said. He made a commitment to treat employees better. He would no longer expect people to just work through personal problems but instead would “inspire them to do truly extraordinary things.”

The mantra was tested in 2008, when orders for its assembly line equipment dropped by 35%. Instead of thousands of employees losing their jobs, Chapman decided that everyone in the company would take a simultaneous six-week leave of absence. It wasn’t easy for everyone to manage for such a long period without salary but the idea that everyone would sacrifice to save the jobs of others solidified the company’s family atmosphere, Chapman said.

“In business school, you’re taught to push people to get the most out of them,” said Mary Rudder, Barry-Wehmiller’s spokeswoman. “But we are here to be stewards of our employees’ lives.”

That’s the way Nespor feels about the students at her school. The role-playing exercise, organised with help of a think tank, is one she thinks many teachers and business leaders could benefit from.

“Just being able to walk in someone else’s shoes for a day, it really changes how you think about other people,” she said.

If all managers would do that, workplaces could be more empathetic — and effective — places.

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