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The Empathetic Workplace - Insights From SXSW 2021 (Part 1)

- 29 Mar 2021 by Yehezkiel Faoma Taslim

It was an honor to represent Indonesia in the SXSW 2021! We met lots of wonderful connections from around the world and visited innovative booths by startups from various industries.

The most exciting part, though, was getting valuable insight straight from subject matter experts on key issues in people and technology.

In this special series, we want to share with you the essence of some of the most brilliant conference sessions and keynote speeches in SXSW 2021.

The Empathetic Workplace

Day 1 of SXSW showcased The Empathetic Workplace, a talk delivered by Katharine Manning, the president of Blackbird, a US-based training and counseling center for workplace trauma and crises.

In this talk, Katharine shared about the importance of providing empathy to your team, especially in these trying times — to put the ‘human’ in human resources.

The COVID-19 pandemic, instances of racism and injustice, economic turmoil and lost jobs creates a real psychological effect on people, including talents in your company. This results in stress and trauma in the workplace. Not only performance is affected, but also their psychological and mental health.

As leaders, we are responsible to address these issues by providing psychological safety to our team (if you recall our previous articles, psychological safety is when you feel safe to be vulnerable) and building trust. When these are in place, people not only perform better, but also show better loyalty, citizenship behavior, and overall well-being.


As leaders, are are responsible to address stress and trauma in the team.


How can we do that? To help leaders build an empathetic workplace and address trauma, Katharine introduced a 5-step framework called LASER.

1. Listen

Even though it sounds likely nothing, simply listening can be really helpful to the person you’re helping. Active listening includes considerations such as:

  • Asking open-ended questions to show that you are interested in listening and encourage them to keep talking.
  • Relaxed body language to show that you are calm, which in turn helps them to calm down as well.
  • Looping or repeating their words. This not only shows that you are actually listening, but also that you understand them.

2. Acknowledge

People often feel very alone when they’re experiencing trauma. By acknowledging their plight, you’re telling them that there’s someone here for them, that they’re not alone.

Like listening, just sitting down and accompanying them may not sound like doing much, but this step is all about letting the stress subside. This isn’t the time to lecture them on what to do. This is the time to let them feel their feelings to the full until they’re ready for the next step.

3. Share

When people feel powerless in the face of traumatic situations, we can give them power by sharing information. Some information you can share include:

  • Facts: this lets them know what’s going on, so they can no longer be in the dark. Let them know the details of the situation or the problem they’re facing.
  • Processes: tell them what is being done and what should be done next. Let them know that there’s a process in place, that you’ve handled this before.
  • Values: share your own personal values, or your organization’s values, and how it relates to what they’re feeling. If you value employee well-being, let them know that it’s important for you to help them.

4. Empower

As tempting as it sounds, doing the work for them is not at all helpful. To empower someone means to let them walk their own path. Ask what kind of help we can provide so that they can deal with their challenges on their own. After all, it is them who knows best what they need and what to do, not us.

There are ways we can empower people with resources:

  • Security: let them know who to call in case something happens, either someone in your company or outside. Having that knowledge at hand gives a sense of security in knowing what to do.
  • Counseling: refer them to experts in your company, notably psychiatrists or counselors. Let them know who to talk to, what programs are available, and how to get in touch with them.
  • Flexibility: during challenging times, it’s not rare that people can find it hard to commit to the old work schedule. Medical operations or family situations are just a few examples. Offer flexible work options lets them know that you’re willing to stick out for them and support them through their ordeal.

5. Return

A return means to focus back to them. Thank them for sharing and trusting you, and remind them of the next steps to be taken.

Regularly follow up and check in on their progress. Not only this shows that you actually care about their well-being, but this lets you learn if the resources you shared earlier worked or if you both need to do something different.

One important thing that Katharine talked about is compassion fatigue. When supporting others, it’s important not to fall into anxiety yourself. To prevent this, it’s vital to set boundaries. One: let them walk their own path. Two: don’t tie your happiness to someone else’s recovery.

From this talk, we learned that LASER as a framework is a great set of guidelines to support our teammates through these tough times and more. By showing and exercising empathy, we can build a team that is not only productive, but also trusting and loyal.

Insights From SXSW

Dreamtalent is planning to cover two more incredible talks from our experience in SXSW 2021, so stay tuned for upcoming articles in this series!

Read part 2 here: Fighting Unconscious Bias In AI With Diversity