#1 Soft Skill for Workplace Communication and Collaboration

Building empathy in the workplace is my number one goal when colleagues and I use improvisational theater tools in on-site, face-to-face workshops.  It’s not about performing or comedy; it’s about broadening the soft skills of emotional intelligence.  Developing verbal and non-verbal behavior, supporting our partners, and engaging in face-to-face conversation.  A solution for building empathy in communication and collaboration.



The Science Behind What Really Drives Performance (It’s Going to Surprise You)

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Imagine you could have a skill where–in any given conversation with colleagues, clients, or subordinates–you could be keenly aware of, and even experience, their feelings and thoughts.

Sounds like some X-Men-like psychic superpower right? Well, what if I told you that anyone can have this uncanny ability and use its strength and charm to have successful conversations?

Well, you can. The superpower I refer to is called empathy.

But this skill–and it is a learned skill available to anyone–is often misunderstood because there are variations of it. I’ll get to the science of it shortly.

How Do You Define Empathy?

To better grasp what people mean when they talk about empathy, the most common uses for empathy fall in these categories:

1. The type of empathy where we directly feel what others feel.

2. The type of empathy where you imagine yourself in others’ shoes.

3. The type of empathy where you imagine the world, or a situation, from someone else’s point of view rather than your own.

4. The type of empathy that researchers sometimes call “mind reading.” It involves being good at reading others’ emotions and body language.

Where do you fit in?

The Research Behind This Superpower

If you’re skeptical that this is touchy-feely campfire nonsense with no business value in a transactional world, consider the research.

Global training giant Development Dimensions International (DDI) has studied leadership for 46 years. They believe that the essence of optimal leadership can be boiled down to having dozens of “fruitful conversations” with others, inside and outside your organization.

Expanding on this belief, they assessed over 15,000 leaders from more than 300 organizations across 20 industries and 18 countries to determine which conversational skills have the highest impact on overall performance.

The findings, published in their High Resolution Leadership report, are revealing. While skills such as “encouraging involvement of others” and “recognizing accomplishments” are important, empathy--yes, empathy–rose to the top as the most critical driver of overall performance.

Specifically, the ability to listen and respond with empathy (see graph below).

Ray Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, sums it up nicely:

Empathy in the modern workplace is not just about being able to see things from another perspective. It’s the cornerstone of teamwork, good innovative design, and smart leadership. It’s about helping others feel heard and understood.

This whole premise does have an air of genius about it, considering that when you take on the perspective of those you are talking with, it engages people on the spot. This can be a difference maker. That’s the good news.

The Bad News

The DDI report reveals a dire need for leaders with the skill of empathy. Only four out of 10 frontline leaders assessed in their massive study were proficient or strong on empathy.

Richard S. Wellins, senior vice president of DDI and one of the authors of the High-Resolution Leadership report, had this to say in a Forbes interview a year ago:

We feel [empathy] is in serious decline. More concerning, a study of college students by University of Michigan researchers showed a 34 percent to 48 percent decline in empathic skills over an eight-year period. These students are our future leaders!

We feel there are two reasons that account for this decline. Organizations have heaped more and more on the plates of leaders, forcing them to limit face-to-face conversations. Again, DDI research revealed that leaders spend more time managing than they do “interacting.” They wish they could double their time spent interacting with others. The second reason falls squarely on the shoulders of technology, especially mobile smart devices. These devices have become the de rigueur for human interactions. Sherry Turkle, in her book, Reclaiming Conversation, calls them “sips of conversations.”

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that empathy shows up in different ways, as I mentioned at the beginning. It’s not just “feeling.” Think how it can translate to both verbal and non-verbal behavior so the person hearing you will feel your empathic nature. And, it goes without saying, people see right through you if your empathy is not expressed in a sincere and authentic way.

Don’t underestimate for a second its true potential. Begin developing leaders to learn this relational skill for competitive advantage.

Your ability to empathize, as a leader, will make a difference in the performance of others. And it is critical to good teamwork.

Resilience and Self-Care

Resilience isn’t just for dealing with the tough times.  We can learn and build new ways of facing personal and professional challenges.  Consider these strategies…

How to Build a Stronger Work Life: Reconsider Resilience

Dr. Marla Gottschalk

I’ve often wondered why building resilience isn’t a key business imperative. Because being human, is often at odds with work life. Our work can routinely bring stress, negativity, setbacks and outright failures — and we are challenged to employ strategies to combat the effects.

We often frame our conversations about resilience with stories of extreme hardship or extenuating circumstances. However, resilience could serve as an ever-present, daily mentor — helping us to rebound from the collected pressures of work life. Most of us forge on, taking little note of the collected toll.

This can be a serious mistake.

Through all of the trials and tribulations, we rarely notice that our psychological resources are waning.We muddle on. We develop idiosyncratic mechanisms to bolster our mood and maintain motivation. However, the damage can accumulate and we become less able to bounce back. Months later, we may realize that we still lament the project that has been cut, laid off co-workers or failing to land an important client contract and our energy levels are affected. When the next event unfolds, we find ourselves essentially bankrupt. Devoid of the necessary resources to meet the challenge.

There have been a number of discussions on the topic, including protecting ourselves from overload, banking positive currency and practicing self-compassion. However, what if we could take resilience one step further? Could we effectively build our skills (and our team’s skills) in this area — just as we challenge our muscles in the gym?

Can we learn to think and act more “resiliently”?

Well — yes. There is evidence that resilience can be learned. The work of Dr. FredLuthens (who explores the construct of Psychological Capital) has completed research examining this area which could be fostered by organizations and shared with their employees. Supporting research completed completed by Ann Masten also provides foundational elements. This includes addressing 1) asset factors (elements that enhance our resilience, such as a stable home life or a healthy way to examine failure), 2) lowering risk factors (for example, a lack of a mentor) and 3) altering our perceptions concerning the potential to influence work life circumstances.

Here are a just few ways to apply this knowledge to our daily lives:

  • Facilitate network building. Building long-term asset factors, provides a stable foundation to help us deal with stressful work situations when they do arise. Consider losing a job for example; stronger networks can help employees move on more effectively by providing access to critical information concerning roles and growth needs.
  • Clarify strategy and goals. Reducing risk factors — elements which weaken our psychological safety net, is also vital. For example, knowing “why” we are completing a task and how our role contributes to outcomes is critical. If we fail to believe that our actions have meaning, we are less likely to forge on.
  • Utilize the “staunch reality” viewpoint. One scenario that quickly depletes psychological resources, is sticking to a game plan that is simply not working. Understanding that we have the ability to influence outcomes by embracing realistic assessments of workplace situations — can help us to prepare. This honest view is necessary to review history, properly identify setbacks, evaluate potential impact and brainstorm possible responses before they occur.
  • Aggressively focus on strengths as a “vaccine”. We can mitigate the negative after effects of stressful events, with a focus on positive elements. This includes the identification and utilization of an individual’s stronger vs. weaker skill sets. A focus on the latter, can quickly deplete our psychological reserves.
  • Explore the sources of “drain”. The elements that drain our psychological reserves can be varied (and often surprising). Consider the sources that affect you and meet with your team to determine where the leaks are occurring. Brainstorm actions to stem the tide.

How do you build (and protect) resilience for yourself or your team? Share your strategies.

Employee Engagement Also Applies to Employer Engagement

Too often I’ve seen executives not engaging in the “soft skills” of leadership, and missing the importance of leading by example.  They expect company managers to “know” how to do what they’re being directed to do.  How is your company helping to build leadership?



3 must-do strategies for executive leaders to permanently improve employee engagement

Vicki Hess

Every executive leader in healthcare has a vested interest in improving employee engagement – whether he or she acknowledges it or not.

Unfortunately, many senior leaders think HR should manage engagement or they are looking for a magic formula when it comes to sustained improvement. Of course one doesn’t exist.

First, the problem. Here’s what I typically hear in my conversations with hospitals and health systems across the country. Employee engagement survey results come in and senior leaders talk about how important engagement is with their manager group. They share their desire for front line leaders to create department level action plans to transform engagement.

The action plans are created and quite often recorded in online monitoring systems for “accountability”. Most leaders – at all levels – understand that engagement is a key lever for productivity, creativity, safety and patient satisfaction so these actions make sense. Too often, the actions center around what the organization and leader need to do to impact engagement and they leave off the personal responsibility of the employees – but that’s another article.

For a month or two, there’s a focus on improving engagement. Then a new priority comes along and the front line leader’s attention is drawn to a new concern. The front line leader’s “one-up” manager stops asking about engagement. It moves to the back burner and all of the sudden it’s 9 months later and time for a new survey and whole cycle starts again.

If you want to stop this vicious cycle, try these 3 strategies.

Have an Engagement Champion at the executive level
Ideally, everyone on the senior leadership team would feel completely committed to engagement, but I know that’s not always going to happen. To quote Peter Drucker, “Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission.” This doesn’t mean that some leaders can let engagement slide off their dashboards; it does mean that you need a champion.

Who is yours? Who on your senior leadership team feels most passionately about employee engagement and is willing to lead a consistent, well thought out campaign to keep engagement on the front burner? Without this level of commitment, engagement might improve in some departments but won’t improve overall. Ideally, the president or CEO is driving the conversations and actions over time. Having a senior level person championing engagement makes a strategic difference.

Provide tools for improvement that are distributed on a regular basis
When a system or process improves it’s usually because of a consistent focus with tools to back it up over time…think Lean Daily Management or traditional Performance Improvement practices. Because employee engagement is often seen as a “soft skill” with hard to measure results, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that leaders will just know what to do.

In my work with clients, I have found the opposite of this to be true. Front line leaders are hungry for high impact, easy to implement ideas and tools to use. From one-on-one meeting agendas to rounding questions to team meeting ideas, many leaders struggle to know what to say and do. Having a working process to “drip” tools and strategies over time makes a difference. How are you providing consistent, realistic tools for your front line leaders to positively impact engagement?

Build in an accountability system starting with executive leaders
Traditional engagement action plans place the accountability on the front line leader. In many nursing settings, these leaders have upwards of 50 direct reports and many other priorities. How do you keep the accountability alive for engagement?

One idea goes back to involvement from the executive leadership team. When senior leaders are interested in the engagement level of their direct reports, they show a level of concern that models what directors and managers should offer to the supervisors who report to them, etc. Think about this. If you are a front line manager and your boss never asks about your own level of engagement, how important are you going to think it is?

Having a system with routine reminders including prompted questions for senior leaders helps to keep the focus present over time. Your Engagement Champion can also make sure that engagement shows up on meeting agendas and strategic planning conversations.

What Now?
In our world of healthcare, uncertain times lie ahead. Uncertainty breeds disengagement when unchecked. Disengagement leads to turnover which leads to time and money spent on re-hiring…and the cycle continues. A revolving door of staff leads to patient dissatisfaction which leads to poor financial performance. None of it is what you want.

The only way to deliver on the promises you are making to your customers & stakeholders is to continually provide an environment where employees are engaged. Now is the time for your senior leadership team to adopt these 3 must do strategies so you can improve engagement for good.

Vicki Hess, RN, is your go-to resource for transforming employee engagement at the individual, department or organization-wide level. As the author of four books, creator of the Engagement Excelerator Virtual Coaching Program, Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), trainer and consultant; Vicki inspires healthcare leaders to take action in a real-world, relatable way. Organizations that implement Vicki’s ideas experience increased engagement, productivity, safety, quality, retention, patient satisfaction, creativity and more. Access free tools and resources when you visit www.EngagementExcelerator.com.

Improv Skills to Boost Workplace Communication, Teamwork and Resiliency

“…improvisers are taught that confidence, agreement, attentive listening and authenticity are the backbone of a solid performance.” Medical Improv is one of the featured areas at Duke University.  It’s not about comedy or stage performance, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun for employees to engage and learn more about communication and collaboration.


Taking Improv from the Stage to the Workplace

April Dudash

At improvisational comedy theaters such as Chicago’s The Second City and The iO Theater, improvisers are taught that confidence, agreement, attentive listening and authenticity are the backbone of a solid performance.

These same skills can be practiced in the workplace.

As Fortune 500 companies and universities use improvisation for professional development, some Duke units are providing improv workshops to teach adaptability during conversations and how to establish trust, teamwork and listening skills among colleagues.

“Improv gives you the ability to adapt and embrace change,” said Bob Kulhan, an improviser and adjunct professor at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business who teaches a “Business Improvisation” class. “The benefit of it can be absolutely tremendous in your life, personally and professionally.”

Here are improv tips to strengthen conversations:

Specifics are best

In improv, performers act out scenes on the spot without a script. The audience can provide a word or phrase for inspiration and then the performers provide strong details to each other and work together to create a scene.

In the workplace, sharing details can move a project forward or clarify expectations.

Dan Sipp, an improviser and standardized patient trainer at Duke, leads an improv workshop for the School of Medicine. He said sharing specifics, especially while talking with patients, could help bring issues into sharp focus.

“Specifics help us connect with a person and help us connect with a story,” Sipp said. “When you’re not specific, you cause people to make assumptions.”

Be accepting of new ideas

Considered the main mantra of improv, “Yes, and…” is always on improvisers’ minds during a performance.

On stage, “Yes, and…” means unconditionally accepting information presented by a scene partner and adding useful information, said Kulhan, the Fuqua adjunct professor. If a performer says, “I need to take my dog to the vet,” her scene partner could respond with, “Yes, and I will drive us there in my Subaru.” “Yes, and…” moves the intent and action forward.

In the workplace, “Yes, and…” means keeping an open mind during conversations and considering all presented ideas.

“’Yes, and…’ is a bridge to thoughtfulness and connection and empathy and engagement,” Kulhan said.

Be resilient in the face of ‘No’

In improv, a performer must present information on the fly to flesh out a scene, and scene partners accept ideas to move a performance forward.

Benefits Shift – Paying Employees to Care for Sick Parents

“One study by MetLife estimated that U.S. businesses are hit with $17.1 billion in annual productivity losses from full-time employees doing intense caregiving for family members.” As an independent RN Patient Advocate, I’ve helped individuals, their families, and company employees navigate our complex medical system. Caring for our elderly parents is a condition that won’t go away, and bravo for the companies that are finding ways to get the help that’s needed for their employees.


Paid Time Off to Care for Your Parents—Seriously

Rebecca Greenfield rzgreenfield

Companies have found a powerful new benefit to add to their arsenal of perks: paid time off to care for sick spouses, parents, and children.

As the hiring market has tightened over the past year, companies have beefed up their benefits packages, adopting more generous parental leave policies and student debt repayment benefits to attract and keep employees. And the benefits arms race continues apace. In the past month, two large employers are leading the way with a new benefit, offering what is generally called elder care but includes spouses and kids as well. Deloitte will give its employees 16 weeks of paid time off to care for sick relatives. Vanguard Group will allow up to two paid weeks.

Few companies offer paid elder care. The Society for Human Resource Management’s 2016 benefits report found that 2 percent of companies subsidize such care. While 75 percent of the more than 1,000 companies surveyed for the Families and Work Institute’s 2014 National Study of Employers said they provide time off for employees to provide elder care without jeopardizing their jobs, it’s often unpaid.

The Family and Medical Leave Act, the federal law that covers maternity leave, requires employers with 50 employees or more to provide 12 weeks of unpaid time off “to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition.” Only 12 percent of U.S. private sector workers have access to paid family leave through their employer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that doesn’t necessarily include elder care.

As baby boomers age out of the workplace, their millennial children, who now make up the largest share of the labor force, will have to care for them. Much like raising a newborn, taking care of a sick or dying relative takes a great deal of time and emotional energy. If a parent has an unexpected terminal illness, for example, a child might need to (or want to) take a significant amount of time off to care for him or her and say goodbye.

Employees stress “the need to get to doctors, to make arrangements to interview care providers, and how difficult that was,” said Kathy Gubanich, the head of human resources at Vanguard, of the company’s own workers. Often, she said, what people need is “a little bit of time to figure all of these things out.”

Even if most young workers haven’t experienced these crises yet, they know they will be grappling with them, and most can’t afford to jump in unpaid. A Deloitte survey found that 88 percent of respondents are for expanding leave policies to include care beyond maternity and paternity leave.

For companies, offering paid elder care is not only a hiring and retention play but potentially a productivity booster. It’s tough to balance working with caring for—or just worrying about—a sick loved one. One study by MetLife estimated that U.S. businesses are hit with $17.1 billion in annual productivity losses from full-time employees doing intense caregiving for family members.

Both Deloitte and Vanguard are using the Family and Medical Leave Act as a framework for administering the benefit. Employees have to apply for the time off, showing that the family member has a “serious illness.” As defined by the act, that is a condition involving inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health-care provider.

“It essentially says someone has got an illness that incapacitates them and you, as a caregiver, can take time off to help them,” said Mike Preston, Deloitte’s chief talent officer. Deloitte’s policy requires that employees take no less than three consecutive days off, because it’s meant for serious care, not for quick stints to pop in on the person or pick up a few things. Workers can spread the 16 weeks out across the year.As with any extended leave, simply offering time off doesn’t mean employees will take it. Leaving work for any amount of time or occasion can jeopardize an employee’s role in some workplaces. That’s why men resist paternity leave, for example. Rosanna Fay, writing for the Atlantic, said her experience caring for her two terminally ill parents while juggling work was like going on maternity leave.

“When I returned home after a two-week hiatus following my mother’s death,” she writes, “my colleagues welcomed me with cards, gifts, condolences and a new job description that left me with nothing challenging to do.”

But the first step toward normalizing a benefit, as with parental leave, is offering it. If elder care follows the same pattern as other hot perks, more companies competing for talent will follow Vanguard and Deloitte’s lead.

“I think it’s becoming a bigger and bigger deal,” said Vanguard’s Gubanich. “I think more and more firms are going to look to these kinds of programs to differentiate themselves.”

Solutions to Support a Strong Organizational Culture

“A sure sign of an unhealthy culture is communication that flows down rather than up and across.” My experience is that most executives and managers think they’re great communicators (!), and even if they are, don’t recognize the importance of continuing to learn and practice with EVERYONE in the organization.  How’s your company’s communication practice going?


The Five Most Common Culture Problems — And Their Solutions

Liz Ryan


Dear Liz,

I’m interviewing to become the first HR Director for a business-to-business services firm. I’ve had two interviews and I really like what I’ve heard so far. For my third (and I believe, final) interview, the regional President who will interview me has asked me to prepare questions for him.

I do have questions for him, but I want to focus in on his Business Pain as I’ve learned from you to do! If they didn’t have significant pain, they wouldn’t be replacing their former HR Manager (who moved out of state) with an HR Director now.

The company outsources its payroll, benefits and HRIS to a third-party vendor. Everyone I have met in the company says that the vendor does a great job. So, I think the region’s Business Pain is more in the area of culture, which is not surprising because they are growing fast and hiring a lot of people.

What are some of the most common culture problems you observe, and if you can share them in a few words, how do you solve the most common problems? I want to talk about my experience creating training programs, communication programs and retention programs as I think these kinds of interventions could be very useful for my (hopefully) new employer.

Thanks Liz!



Dear Chris,

Often as HR practitioners we are taught to see the world through program-colored glasses. That is, we get used to observing a team and a workplace with the question, “What do these folks need — more training, more communication or a different pay structure?” planted in our heads.

We have tools at our disposal — the ability to write policies, classrooms and devices through which we can reach our teammates, and so on — and we want to use them! I teach the opposite approach. Forget about interventions for now and focus on what is happening inside your possible next employer. What is causing your regional President sleepless nights right now? I guarantee you he isn’t lying awake thinking “I need a new leadership development program!”

Pain shows up in little ways at first. Your regional President (I’m calling him Mike) undoubtedly runs into daily or many-times-daily issues that make him wonder “Are we doing everything we need to do to keep this team focused and connected as we grow?” The answer may well be “No.” It’s very hard for growing companies to keep all the pieces together.

Small companies tend to grow a ton in a short term and then overreact by installing too much HR infrastructure (and the worst, crusty kind of infrastructure to boot). They rush to install formal systems like 360-degree feedback programs and annual Employee Engagement Surveys.