Why business built on empathetic leadership will win the recovery

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Cat Mules

Business leaders are being called upon to handle unforeseen crises linked to Covid 19. This can take as much a toll on workers, as expectations around productivity, team spirit and mental health in the workplace are changing fast.

Despite the pressures, crisis provides leaders with some of the most compelling reasons to connect with employees. An empathetic approach is one of the best chances to rebuild organisational health, productivity and retention.

New Zealand business diversity – issues & differences

The majority of respondents to this year’s New Zealand Workplace Diversity Survey highlight the importance of wellbeing to the success of the workplace (75% of).  However, creating an inclusive workplace continues to have stronger focus in the state sector than the private sector – particularly in regard to questions of gender, disability and bullying. What leaders see as important also depends on organisational size. Larger organisations tend to have more resources to put into developing an empathetic and inclusive work environment. Gender stereotypes are top of mind for large organisations, while SMEs see flexibility and bias as the most important issues.

There has been a positive move towards a more diverse business culture in New Zealand – but change is not fast enough for New Zealand’s changing demographic makeup, ageing society and workforce, according to Diversity Works. For example, even though the number of over 65s in the workforce has doubled in the last decade, age is not considered a top issue – ranked at just 34%. Similar perceptions are found with ethnic diversity (47%), reflecting that Māori and Pasifika continuing to be underrepresented, but also a lack of acknowledgement of the growing Asian workforce.

Empathetic leadership

Empathetic leadership develops ongoing organisational trust and comfort so that supportive conversations can occur. It’s a journey, not a one-time event.

However in the workplace, it is sometimes easier said than done. One risk is that diversity and inclusion practices are treated as a silo-ed or one-off initiatives tasked by the HR department. For real empathetic engagement to occur, individual leaders need to embrace the importance of acknowledging and valuing difference.

Accelerating business performance

There is strong research showing that valuing diverse opinions and perspectives creates many advantages in organisations: increased profitability and creativity, better problem-solving abilities and stronger governance. When innovation is key to growth, diverse management teams drive more profitability. Diverse management teams may have 19% higher revenues due to innovation, a study from Boston Consulting Group identifies. Given diverse backgrounds bear unique perspectives, experiences and ideas, it makes sense that innovation will be the accelerator that drives the business outcomes that come with diversity.

Organisations built on diversity are more resilient and effective. They also outperform those that do not invest in diversity.

From diversity to inclusion

Whilst some progress has been made with inclusive, empathetic workplaces, there’s a difference between hiring employees with diverse viewpoints and actually ensuring that these viewpoints are heard. Organisations may pay lip service to diversity with international food days, celebration of national festivals such as Diwali and acknowledgment of religious ceremonies such as Eid al-Fitr, but it takes genuine and ongoing empathetic acceptance of difference to drive sustainable business progress.

As Institute of Directors for New Zealand’s CEO Kirsten Patterson says:

“Often, diversity and inclusion are lumped together and assumed to be the same thing. Diversity is being invited to the table, inclusion is about unlocking the power of diversity. It’s essential that we represent a range of thought around the board table – but more importantly we need to truly challenge ourselves”.

Four New Zealand organisations fostering inclusive, empathetic cultures


The New Zealand Police – recruiting those less likely to be recruited

The New Zealand police are well aware of the need to empathise with the communities who are most closely linked to problems they needed to solve. They have created a youth Police Pathway Programme to open up honest conversation about the attitudes of young Kiwis toward the police and foster a community-centric talent pipeline across New Zealand’s regions.

Emerging Diversity & Inclusion - New Zealand Police - DiversityWorks

The NZ Police were winners of the Diversity Works 2020 Emerging Diversity & Inclusion / Diversity Works

Aurecon – providing parents with greater opportunity

Engineering design and advisory firm Aurecon sought to take a more empathetic role in supporting their staff in a diverse range of working and partnering roles. Its Shared Care policy is an overarching initiative to foster genuine choice about balancing work and parenting.

Aurecon launches 'Shared Care' parental leave scheme

Aurecon won the Diversity Works 2020 Work Life Balance award / Aurecon Group

Vodafone New Zealand – unifying through diversity

One of New Zealand’s largest telecommunications companies partnered with Diversity Works to counter potential damage to diversity and inclusion amid an organisational change. Partnership initiatives included a stock-take on progress, benchmarking against other New Zealand businesses, and the development of future-focused equality strategies, such as flexible working and wellbeing programmes.

Diversity Works partners with Vodafone New Zealand / Diversity Works

Jasmax – a stronger Māori voice in architecture and design

A bicultural, multi-disciplinary design and architecture practice launched a way for young graduates to help foster change and cultural understanding of tikanga and Te Reo Māori in their day-to-day work life. Initiatives included cultural deign workshops, guest lectures and a bespoke Jasmax Te Ao Māori Guide.

Cultural Celebration - Jasmax - DiversityWorks

Jasmax were winners of the Diversity Works 2020 Cultural Celebration award / Diversity Works

These New Zealand organisations are just a few of those focusing on diversity and inclusion to respond to a diverse global audience. It’s important in ‘normal times’. Now, in the current social and global difficulty it may be even more important.

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Cat Mules

Umbrellar's Digital Journalist, coming from a background in tech reporting and research. Cat's inspired by the epic potential of tech and helping kiwi innovators share their success stories.

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