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Empathy in organisations: how considerate managers improve employee performance

Dr Yasin Rofcanin is exploring the links between employee wellbeing and organisational productivity

A father looks after his baby while working on a laptop
Employees are re-energised when able to engage fully with their home life

Many claim we are living through a Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is a new chapter in human development, relating to changes brought about by new technology. It represents a shift in how we live, and especially in how we work.

New technology promises to increase workplace productivity. But with this comes the possibility of mass job losses. The tension caused by this push for higher efficiency dominates much of the debate around the future of work.

In a field obsessed with big questions, Dr Yasin Rofcanin decided to narrow his focus. He researches how organisations can boost productivity, but through a psychological rather than technological perspective. He explores the relationship between employees’ productivity and their personal experiences of work.

As Deputy Director of the Future of Work research centre, Yasin is in good company. He and his colleagues research how work changes in response to new technologies, practices and people.

Happy workers are better workers

Yasin’s research centres on the simple, but often overlooked, idea that increased wellbeing leads to increased productivity. It considers employees’ emotional needs as central to their work performance. His results show that people are more effective at work when they are motivated, engaged and happy.

Most workplaces claim to prioritise employee happiness. But Yasin’s findings show that modern HR misses one essential thing: employers must address staff wellbeing outside of work, as well as in the office.

People first, workers second

To Yasin, the work self and home self are inseparable. Digitisation has blurred the boundaries between our work and private lives; with email and smartphones comes the pressure to be permanently available

The concept of ‘spillover’ is the uniting theme in all my work. Spillover means how things overflow from your work life to your home life
Dr Yasin Rofcanin Deputy Director of the Future of Work research centre

People have a finite amount of cognitive resources. When these resources are depleted, this impacts work performance. Being able to fully engage with their home life helps people recharge. Yasin’s work shows that if an employee is stressed and overworked, this will spill into their home life, preventing them from restoring energy and motivation.

Where the personal meets the professional

Born in Istanbul, Yasin studied psychology before working in an investment bank. The work was stressful, the hours were long and he didn’t get on with his co-workers. Yasin soon noticed a detrimental effect on his productivity. A common story in the corporate world, maybe. But for Yasin this was the seed of an idea that would come to dominate his research career.

After working 17-hour days for four weeks straight, Yasin decided enough was enough. He wanted to start exploring his ideas, and enrolled on a part-time MBA.

Yasin quit his job after the first year of his MBA, a decision fuelled by his manager's negative reaction to him studying while working. He has never looked back, and now believes firmly in researching problems drawn from personal experiences.

'I was working hard,' says Yasin. 'But I realised that success in the workplace didn’t correspond to the things I thought they did. I had ideas about what would improve my productivity, but they were seen as controversial in that environment.'

Three routes to better employer empathy

Yasin’s work can be divided into three streams. The first (and foundational) idea is this relationship between work life and home life. The second and third relate to the ways organisations can create conditions to manage this ‘spillover'. He looks at ways employers can ensure that only positive, enriching work experiences overflow into home life. His evidence shows that organisations benefit from this extra care and consideration, through the increased dedication and motivation of the employee.

He advocates for a two-way relationship between person and organisation. According to his research, the most effective organisations practise ‘reciprocity’. This means that they create conditions that help their employees perform.

Much of Yasin’s work looks at the benefits of empowering employees. Organisations can empower an individual by allowing them to 'customise' their role. This could range from flexible working arrangements to ‘job crafting’: letting employees adjust specific elements of their roles so they feel ownership and responsibility.

Yasin thinks that the most important role of a manager should be to understand employees’ needs and create conditions that accommodate them. If these needs are met, then employee motivation, performance and dedication will increase.

'So here we were able to craft a very important message to managers', says Yasin. 'Put yourself in the shoes of others, take their perspective and try to understand their needs.'

Yasin’s research shows that employees who can customise the terms of their employment have improved wellbeing. This in turn improves their performance at work. A key aspect of this is the recognition that good performance doesn’t happen in isolation. There is a wider context – both at work and at home – that can help or hinder productivity.

All employees are individuals, each with individual circumstances and pressures. So a supportive manager, one who helps create conditions for each individual to succeed, is essential to performance.

How to turn empathy into policy

The real question posed by Yasin’s research is how to formalise something so subjective into organisational policy. Although manager behaviour is the most important factor in empowering employees, an organisation’s culture and policies also play a part.

Next, Yasin plans to look at ways to formalise this managerial empathy into policy. Working with organisations, he hopes to show that prioritising employee wellbeing is not just a matter of compassion, but also strategy.

More about our research