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A top workplace culture speaker has revealed her secrets for creating an inclusive, happy workplace.

Belinda Parmar OBE, CEO of The Empathy Business, was listed in the World Economic Forum’s List of Young Global Leaders and also voted one of Top 20 Global Diversity figures in 2020.

Considered a pioneer of equality and empathy, she told Megan Lupton that these qualities are key to corporate success as well as staff wellbeing.

“Inclusivity is about feeling you matter, it’s about belonging. I think the first thing – the same as empathy – is really about measuring and holding up that mirror to your organisation,” she says.

“Companies fall into the trap of thinking about quotas or targets. It’s very easy for huge companies to say, ‘no, we’re diverse, we’ve got X number of women, we’ve got X number of BAME’. They very much stick with the black and white: they don’t get into the nuance of diversity.

“I recommend both: yes, you need to have ambitious targets, but you also need to look at the nuances of diversity, and that comes from the ability to call something out in a meeting, to have those difficult conversations. 

“With a lot of companies we work with, we get them to start having those difficult conversations. I mean, most people are really – and I’m going to be totally stereotypical – most Brits are terrible at having difficult conversations.

“So, it’s about giving people the tools, and it’s about the senior leaders having difficult conversations.”

London-based The Empathy Business aims to ‘transform companies through the science of empathy’. It uses data, behavioural science, psychology, metrics and frameworks to identify the empathy strengths and deficits of your company. 

At pains to point out that empathy is not sympathy, it has also produced a Global Empathy Index, published in the Harvard Business Review, which ranks public companies across the world. This demonstrates that more empathic companies are more profitable in terms of market capitalisation, growth and earnings. 

“Ultimately, if employees are happy, then it makes them more productive, more loyal – good health of people is good health for the business,” says Parmar. 

“We ran an index for the Harvard Business Review and found that the more empathic companies make more money. It really doesn’t matter which way you cut the numbers – by growth, by productivity or earnings – more empathic companies make more money. 

“Part of empathy is caring about your employees, starting to understand their mental wellbeing and having those difficult conversations.”

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Having started out in tech and now utilised across sectors, its customers include Samsung, Aston Martin, Barclays, HSBC UK, British Gas and Lloyds Bank.

“The first thing we do with large organisations is hold up a mirror to them,” explains Parmar.

“We identify what we determine as the ‘empathy strengths’ and the ‘empathy deficits’. We’ve built a framework that considers what an empathic organisation looks like and we have seven factors, and one of the key factors is the feeling of belonging. 

“Belonging is at the heart of an empathic culture and we measure belonging by very hard metrics. So, things like the percentage of time senior people versus junior people speak in meetings – you don’t want your senior people talking all the time! 

“Secondly, we work with companies to make lots of small changes that are low cost but high impact, that could be anything. It could be changing the whole performance structure, moving away from appraisals, for example – nobody wants to be appraised – trying to become a much more equal, inclusive and empathic organisation.”

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She says poor leadership can have a significant impact on employee performance.

“I think a decade ago you could get away with being an unempathetic CEO, as long as you delivered the numbers – it was all about the numbers,” she says.

“Interestingly, during the pandemic the CEO of a major consultancy in the UK told his employees to stop moaning, get on with it and don’t be a victim. Because of this, he had to resign.

“I think what we’re seeing now is that unempathetic, un-inclusive leadership is not tolerated anymore. And that is a really good thing. Those days of the alpha male who can only deliver the numbers, only has technical expertise, doesn’t have that emotional intelligence… those days are gone. 

“The other thing is with COVID-19, we have seen a mental health tsunami, I believe. We know that mental health issues are much higher than before. 

“So, we need brilliant, emotionally intelligent leaders, as well as technical and financially astute leaders.”

If you could give her younger self one piece of advice, what would it be? “Ask for forgiveness, not permission,” she answers.

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