Today’s tumultuous environment — the pandemic, the economy, war, divisive politics, the changing nature of work, and continued uncertainty — generates emotions in just about everyone. And those emotions undoubtedly have an impact on people’s engagement at work. According to Gallup, employee engagement has dropped over the last several years to 32%, and 17% of employees are actively disengaged.
To address this issue, many organizations are prioritizing caring for employees. But despite innumerable well-intended efforts, a Deloitte survey of 1,000 professionals found that we’re missing the mark. The top driver of burnout is a lack of support or recognition from leadership.
A simple but powerful way to connect with and care for employees is to recognize their emotions — especially negative ones. Research shows that identifying or recognizing others’ emotions builds trust. Here’s why recognition is so impactful, plus 10 exercises managers can implement to increase their emotional awareness and engage their team members.
Why Recognition Matters
Positive feedback or recognition makes community members feel valued, reduces power and status differences between them, and may increase everybody’s sense of belonging. Although recognition costs virtually nothing, it’s a tool leaders and organizations underutilize. In a survey of over 20,000 people we conducted with Tony Schwartz for Christine’s book, Mastering Community, we found that a mere 42% believed that their manager recognized and appreciated their work.
When we’re recognized by members of our community, we feel a tighter tie to them. This is also what Schwartz, founder and CEO of the Energy Project, which focuses on corporate wellness, found (pre-pandemic) when his organization interviewed heart surgeons and their intensive care nurses at a large, well-known hospital where understaffing, long hours, and burnout were widespread. Schwartz’s team asked dozens of nurses what was the biggest challenge they faced at work. Given the intense demands these nurses face, the team assumed the answer would have something to do with exhaustion or how little time they had to recover and catch their breath. Surprisingly, the nurses said it was insufficient appreciation from the surgeons whose patients they served with such devotion.
Schwartz and his team then went to the surgeons, who were far better compensated than the nurses, but worked under difficult, high-stress conditions. What was their biggest challenge? Again, the team was surprised. The most common answer was a lack of appreciation from the hospital administrators. “I save lives every day, but I sometimes feel like I’m working in a factory,” one surgeon told them, echoing several of his colleagues.
It makes sense that caring cultures matter. Receiving praise releases dopamine, which is associated with well-being and joy, while gratitude gives the giver and receiver a mood boost. With an increase in people feeling disconnected and lonely, recognition is both harder to come by and more necessary because it helps build relationships.
Researchers Sigale Barsade and Olivia O’Neill studied “companionate love” — what they described as “feelings of affection, compassion, caring, and tenderness for others” — at a large, long-term health care facility and hospital over the course of 16 months. Compassionate love is manifested by workers “expressing caring and affection toward one another, safeguarding each other’s feelings, and showing tenderness and compassion when things don’t go well.”
Employees who felt caring from colleagues had less emotional exhaustion, less absenteeism, better teamwork, and higher satisfaction. The benefits flowed to patients, who reported more-positive moods, improved quality of life, better health outcomes, and fewer trips to the emergency room. Families reported greater satisfaction and willingness to recommend.
To test whether this was unique to health care, the researchers then surveyed 3,201 employees in seven different industries, from financial services to real estate, and found similar results: Employees who felt free to express care, affection, and compassion for one another were more satisfied with and committed to the organization.
10 Empathy Exercises
While calls to reduce burnout, implement systemic fixes, and increase retention mount, managers in any industry can implement these 10 strategies immediately to listen deeply for emotions, reflect that understanding, and provide appreciation, connection, and community. These tactics can be used in both in person and in virtual environments, on a regular basis or as needed, in whichever order works for your team.
1. Appreciation round
One person completes the following sentence about a colleague and then tags the next person, or the next person volunteers:
“What I appreciate about you, John, is…”
The more specific and detailed you can be about the behavior or attribute, the better.
2. Complete-me exercise
Have people complete one of these sentences, either verbally or written:
“Compassion is hardest when…”
“I made a difference yesterday when I…”
“I show up every day because…”
3. Step-in circles
Get everyone together in a circle and ask them to step in when they agree with a statement. After each statement, ask people to step back to the original circle.
Step in if you prefer the beach to the mountains.
Step in if you have not had a chance to exercise in a week … a month … a year.
Step in if you feel like you are not enough some days … most days.
Step in if you worry you are a failure.
Like a funnel, you start superficial, then increase vulnerability. When doing this exercise in a remote environment, ask people to use the hand-raise feature instead of stepping into the circle.
4. Raising your hand
Isolation amplifies shame and guilt — both destructive emotional forces. Knowing that other people can relate to your emotions (by raising your hand in this case) removes that isolation.
Consider the following hypothetical example: A hospital employee notified the wrong family about a patient’s death. The family was devastated. When it was later recognized that the wrong family had been informed, a new family had to be called, a disclosure to the original family had to be made, and a root cause analysis (RCA) was launched.
At the RCA, pain hung heavy in the air as the caregiver described how they felt like a failure, and shame followed, growing heavier with every passing second of silence. Someone asked if anyone in the room could imagine the heartbreak of making a mistake that caused harm to a patient and their loved ones when you’ve dedicated your life to healing others. They were asked to raise their hand if they could. Every hand went up, and the room erupted in tears.
5. The pause
Created by Jonathan Bartels to foster meaning, “The Pause” is a brief spoken recognition followed by 15 to 30 seconds of silence at the bedside to honor the passing of a patient.
However, the practice can be used in any industry. If there’s a workplace accident or shooting, if a colleague or one of their family members pass, or on the anniversary of a loss, make a brief statement about who the person was and their impact, express appreciation for those who cared for the person, and then hold a short, collective silence. These consistent rituals around what matters bind us together.
6. Personal notes
Provide note cards for employees and leaders to use to recognize someone, express gratitude, or acknowledge an emotional event. There is magic in the feel of a card in your hands and the thoughtfulness of a penned note. Remote employees can mail their cards or use e-cards.
7. Creative storytelling and gratitude
Many employers read customer, employee, and patient comments or letters about employees at huddles, meetings, and town halls. Even better, ask employees to read the letters aloud. Fill the senses by playing joy-filled recorded customer calls. Ask customers or focus groups to make homemade appreciation videos for staff. Have the executives make some pop-up calls for recognition.
8. Rant exercises
When we’re put in situations that compromise our values, we experience moral distress, which contributes to burnout. Checking in on and identifying what people value helps us expand our capacity for empathy when someone is upset.
Pair people up and ask everyone to think of a frustrating situation at work or in life. Give each pair two minutes to discuss, with the speaker giving a friendly rant about the situation. The rules are that:
- No rant should be personal (i.e., about a shared colleague) or inappropriate.
- The details will not be shared outside of the room.
- The ranting stops when the facilitator’s hand raises.
The second person should listen for what values are at stake for the speaker. For example, if someone feels angry, hurt, and afraid after being yelled at by a customer, they value respect. A person who feels betrayed or hopeless when their organization says safety is really important, but staffing and training are inadequate — they value integrity. Someone who describes feeling excluded because they weren’t a part of a key executive meeting about their project — they value inclusion.
After two minutes, have the pairs switch roles and then ask everyone what values they heard. The rant allows us to find our collective common ground in the face of strong emotion.
There are a couple of easy ways to check in with your team members:
- Put pictures of different things on a table. For example, we’ve included pictures of a family, the beach, twinkle lights, a trail in nature, a labyrinth, a child smiling, a bench in a garden, a sunset with clouds, a storm, and a large dumbbell. Ask everyone to pick one and, in 30 seconds, explain why. People might speak to what they lack, what they enjoy, how they’re feeling (hopeful, heavy, or joyful), or even share a dream. To set an example, you go first.
- One-word heart check: “Give me one word that describes how you’re showing up today emotionally.”
Then simply acknowledge the range of emotions people are experiencing.
10. Wow moments
Create fond memories through unexpected “wow” gestures of recognition. For example, after hiring someone, send their family members a thank-you note for being a part of your community and supporting their loved one. Walk long-term employees to their car on their last day. The idea is to make the person feel special in a meaningful way, which will remain in their memory, and might even become the story they tell about your brand for years to come.
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Lifting up both individuals and teams and recognizing emotions builds stronger communities, more trust, and helps people feel cared for. With the environment continuing to feel uncertain, engaging employees in this way is more important than ever.