The Role of Empathy At Work

Empathy has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years. Interest in empathy has led to extensive research and annual reports on the subject. Leaders in the spotlight, like the CEO and President of SHRM, are focusing on empathy in publicized messages. It may come as a surprise then that researchers still cannot agree on a definition for this concept. In this blog, I’ll explore what empathy is, its effects in the workplace, and strategies to bring it into your work.

Defining Empathy

As mentioned, it’s no simple task to define empathy. This survey of existing research on the subject spends several pages trying to agree on a definition. The term originated in the 20th century, introduced to the English language by Edward Titchener. However, it has long since been misunderstood. In the study I referenced, researchers discuss what empathy is not. For instance, it’s not the same thing as compassion or emotional intelligence. These concepts, though related, are not identical. Even though we’ve seen it happen in brain scans, we still don’t know how to define it!

To further complicate things, empathy has many dimensions. First, there’s the emotional side, which involves feeling what another person feels. There’s also a cognitive element. That’s being able to understand what another person is thinking or feeling. Third, there’s behavioral empathy. This consists of actions that reflect the fact that you understand how someone else feels. To illustrate these three aspects, consider how I might react to someone who is crying. If seeing that makes me feel sad, it’s emotional. If it makes me realize that this person is sad and in need of support, then I’m taking a cognitive approach. Finally, I can translate my empathy into behavior by offering this person a hug or a box of tissues… or chocolates.

However we express empathy, it communicates an important message, identified in this Forbes article. It shows people that they’re not alone. It also facilitates respect. Feeling what someone else feels helps us get where they’re coming from. In the workplace, this is crucial for working together in teams. And it comes with a huge host of benefits.

An Impactful Way of Relating to Others

This research-grounded article relates a bunch of positive outcomes that follow empathy in the workplace. One important grouping of effects is especially relevant now. Two years into a still-ongoing pandemic, mental health challenges plague the workforce. Stress, anxiety, sadness, and trouble concentrating are not uncommon. Fortunately, these symptoms can start to get better from empathetic interactions with leaders and coworkers.

We also know the importance of empathy and the respectful communication it engenders by looking at its opposite. Do you know what happens when people are rude to each other at work? This study found that people start sleeping worse. Given the importance of healthy sleep, that’s concerning. Rudeness also decreases productivity and creativity. Clearly, fostering respect is crucial.

Finally, empathy conveys a bunch of positive effects. For example, it increases cooperation in collaborative work. It also makes employees more innovative and engaged. This might be because of their improved mental health and work-life balance. As this article adds, empathetic managers also make their employees feel valued. Of course, employees are more likely to stay with their organization and do good work when they’re respected.

Dangers of Empathy Initiatives

Having sung the praises of this new workplace trend, I have to acknowledge some cautions. This article from Time raises concerns about “corporate empathy.” The article cites employees who have seen these efforts turn into hypocrisy. For instance, one company advocated for self care, which seemed great. However, they simultaneously switched to a health insurance plan that covered less mental health care. That makes no sense. Another company asked employees in customer service to be more empathetic. However, management’s decision to base promotions on inaccurate feedback surveys demonstrated a total lack of empathy for the employees themselves!

Besides that, there’s an inherent tension between several bottom lines in companies. On the one hand, their goal is profit. Nevertheless, many companies want to embrace Corporate Social Responsibility. When leaders don’t value both equally, issues arise. If leaders think they’re doing a favor by extending empathy, they view their employees as obstacles to profit. This puts an unfair target on the backs of marginalized employees. Those employees who have to fight for their rights in the workplace may need more empathy. But they can still be viewed as assets, not obstacles, to success. Unfortunately, research has demonstrated that people feel less empathy for members of other racial groups. This means that empathy might not be extended to everyone equally at work. Any organization should be wary of this pitfall.

By the way, if this seems like a lot to ask of leaders, it is. That’s another danger of empathy efforts at work. As this HBR article acknowledges, leaders risk burnout when they take on others’ feelings. Taking their employees’ perspectives can also interfere with leaders playing their part. Leaders can’t let empathy for others overwhelm them.

Strategies for Empathetic Leadership

It’s evident that leaders need to learn best practices for empathy. This article has some ideas for going about it. The most intuitive thing might be training leaders to understand how other people feel. However, it’s not enough to think that you understand someone. It’s also important to actually ask employees about their experiences and actively listen. Leaders can also educate themselves about their organization’s resources for promoting wellness to help employees get connected.

showing empathy through listening while drinking coffeeThe Center for Creative Leadership also has some good ideas for fostering empathy. Leaders can show interest in their employees’ aspirations and help them set relevant goals at work. They can also respond compassionately to employees experiencing losses. I wrote this blog about grief at the start of the pandemic. Sadly, it remains very relevant today.

By striving for the positive impacts of empathy and avoiding its pitfalls, leaders can shift workplace culture for the better. I hope I’ve given you some good ideas for places to start. Let’s hope we start seeing more genuine understanding and respect in the workplace.