PRACTICAL WORKPLACE LESSONS FROM LITERATURE MASTERMIND, VONNEGUT
It’s estimated that about 3 million American workers have quit their jobs each month in 2015. While economists see this statistic as a sign of confidence, the picture is less rosy if you’re a manager or HR professional. People aren’t just quitting their jobs because they’re looking for more money. Instead, they’re asking for understanding and flexibility from their organizations and leaders — and leaving when they don’t get that.
Look at what a 2013 Careerbuilder survey found when it asked employees what factors motivated them to stay at their job. The top four reasons are:
What can managers do to foster an organizational culture of understanding and flexibility? Responsive policies that speak to employees’ needs are important, but that requires a management approach that’s first built on compassion and empathy. Managers who build empathetic relationships with employees not only motivate employees to perform better but can also respond appropriately to their needs. In fact, a Center for Creative Leadership study concluded that empathy is positively related to job performance; in short, empathetic managers are better at their jobs.
If you’re looking for a way to improve your empathy skills, turn to one of America’s most well-known novelists, Kurt Vonnegut. His extensive body of work is dedicated to the simple idea that we should, simply put, act decently towards one another.
The Value of Humanism
Vonnegut is best known for the satire and dark humor of his most famous novels, Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions. But as a self-proclaimed humanist, Vonnegut also infused his writing with an empathetic worldview, believing as the American Humanist Association does, “that dignity and compassion should be the basis for how you act toward someone else.”
But empathy isn’t just about trying to please everybody or being emotional. Daniel Goleman, the codirector of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University, reminds us that “empathy means thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings — along with other factors — in the process of making intelligent decisions.”
Here’s what Vonnegut, if he were alive, would tell you to do to be more thoughtful and understanding of your employees’ feelings:
#1. Be Interested in People
In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut’s character Felix Hoenikker is a brilliant scientist with little regard for the human consequences of his projects, whether that’s the atomic bomb or the use of a fictional substance he invents called ice-nine. Hoenikker rather famously states in the novel that he’s just not that “interested in people.”
Contrast that with what Roman Krznaric, the author of Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, suggests is one way to nurture our brain’s natural capacity for empathy: cultivate curiosity about strangers. He writes that “curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own.” Likewise, managers can make an effort to be curious about their employees, whether that’s learning about their professional backgrounds or personal life.
#2. Look for Common Threads
Vonnegut’s writing often touches on finding the things that define humanity or make us human. This concept is equally important if you’re a manager trying to be more empathetic.
Looking for what you share with your employees and emphasizing what your employees share with each other builds stronger team relationships. Krznaric underscores that highly empathetic people “challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them.” It might be naturally difficult to understand someone with a different personality or life experience, but when you find commonalities with the people you think are the most different from you, you’re paving the path for better working relationships. For example, if you’re an extroverted manager, seek out the introverts on your team and search for commonalities that allow you to better understand that person.
#3. Be a Good Listener
Vonnegut begins a chapter in his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, with the command “Listen.” It’s a directive to the reader to pay close attention to what he’s about to say, but it’s equally good advice for managers.
If you’re a people manager, listening should become an automatic part of your day-to-day interactions with employees. Listening to employees not only lets you know what they want in the workplace but also gives you a way to search for those commonalities that form the basis for empathy. Still, as Krznaric notes, “[L]istening is never enough … Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding — an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.” Make an active effort to hear what your employees are saying — but don’t forget to share how you feel in that process, as well.
#4. Be Understanding
In his novel Timequake, Vonnegut writes, “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.” Showing employees that you understand their situation is crucial, even in the most difficult circumstances, and sometimes it requires more than just lip-service.
Look at what John Brown, President of Primary Freight Services, did when company revenues dropped. Instead of laying off his workforce, “He chose instead to cut executive pay, including his own, and moved his staff to a four-day work week, thus saving 18 jobs and medical coverage for his employees.” Brown admits that this empathetic reaction was costlier than simply slashing his workforce, but his decision underscored the importance of employees to the company, rather than relying on pure numbers. If you’re put in the difficult situation of having to lay off employees, be up front about your own worries in an effort to show employees they’re not alone, as Vonnegut suggests.
Empathy is often understood as a touchy-feely characteristic that seems best left to personal relationships, but experts like Goleman see it as equally important to the business world. As a manager, building relationships with your employees requires you to show empathy and compassion on a daily basis. When you do that, you’ll not only be able to respond to their needs — but you’ll also prevent employees from quitting because they’re not happy with the level of understanding or flexibility from their bosses. Take a page from Vonnegut, who wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater that the only rule he knows of in life is, “You’ve got to be kind.”