One of the most important skills required in today’s workplace is the ability to establish empathy. By understanding and practicing empathy, you and your employees are more likely to resolve conflict, build productive and efficient teams, and improve relationships organization-wide, as well as with customers. Empathy is vital skill for any leader.
“Without empathy it is not possible to get the best from your team, so for this reason it is the key to everything.” - Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and recognize the feelings and emotions, as well as viewpoints, of others around you. People with higher levels of empathy are more skilled at understanding situations from other people’s perspectives and react accordingly, with more compassion. When it comes to empathy in the workplace, it allows employees to establish genuine, empathetic connections with colleagues that foster relationships and improve performance. Empathy can go a long way in the business world and is one of the most important soft skills to acquire and use daily. Not only does it build leadership, improve work environments, and strengthen relationships, but being shown empathy also improves an individual’s satisfaction of their job and organization. A recent study by Businessolver found that that one-in-three employees would leave their organizations for a more compassionate environment. Businessolver also states that 87% of CEOs agree that empathy can improve an organization’s financial performance. Employees that are able to lead with empathy help organizations thrive and succeed for long-term success.
Practice Empathy Regularly
One important thing to keep in mind is there is no ”cookie cutter” way to practice empathy in the workplace. It could be as simple as just listening to a colleague’s story about an illness or offering to help cover sick days. Empathy is about respecting differing opinions whether you agree or disagree. By practicing empathy, you avoid quick judgment and stereotyping. But keep in mind that there is a difference between empathy, and sympathy. Sympathy is demonstrating pity for someone else, without truly understanding their situation. Empathy is the capacity to look through another person’s eyes and see the situation from their perspective, experience, emotions, and needs. In the workplace, empathy helps develop a clearer awareness between people. Below are some examples of how to practice empathy in the workplace:
- Listen. Be an attentive listener, and really listen to what someone is saying to you. Avoid being distracted by thoughts of the story you are reminded of and eager to tell. Face-to-face conversations are almost always the preferred format for communication, especially when feelings are involved. Take the time to have conversations with your colleagues. Listening is critically important for the leadership throughout the organization. Employees need to know they are being heard and understood; this creates more respect and trust throughout an organization.
- Ask Questions. In conjunction with being a good listener, asking the right questions is also key to practicing empathy. When you ask thoughtful questions, you are letting your colleagues and team members know that you are listening, and that you hear them. When asking questions, try to be specific to the concerns. Asking questions and showing you care about the situation acknowledges their feelings and point of views.
- Avoid judgement and assumptions. By using judgement and stereotyping, you are not able to fully empathize for another individual. Do not pass judgement about other colleagues. By assuming the worst, or having negative impressions based off your own assumptions, you stifle empathy. Give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt before forming an opinion.
- Recognize feelings. It is common knowledge that work can stress people out. Some people handle stress better than others. Keep in mind how you speak and react to other people, and take into consideration their workload, and their lives outside of work. Try to always communicate with empathy by expressing respect and kindness, and you will probably get what you need faster. After all, every organization’s best asset is their people.
Why Empathy Often Fails in the Workplace
The number one reason why an empathetic approach at works fails is because people are human. Most of the time, people do not realize what they are doing or saying and how it can affect others. Employees more often than not tend to get sucked into mindless routines and forget to take note of their actions. Remember how we explained the difference between sympathy and empathy? Sympathy does not require action. Empathy sees a problem and tries to find a solution. Common situations where it might accidentally occur, are jokes made when colleagues or managers use negative examples to prove a point. There is a phrase referred to as empathy gap that is very common. What this means is that when people (or colleagues) are in a specific mental state (be it happy or sad), they have a hard time predicting how they will act during another state of mind (such as being angry). Again, we are human.
Empathy in the Workplace is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
Learning empathy will not happen overnight. Empathy is a soft skill that often lacks development and understanding throughout organizations. Just like some people handle stress better than others, some people are naturally more empathetic than others. Organizations from the top-down need to encourage empathy skills from day one. It takes time and energy from each individual and needs to be an ongoing process. For a lot of organizations, it has not been a priority. We have also seen what the last year has done to company and employee morale, especially working remotely. It is a fact that organizations that use an empathetic approach will see higher productivity and engagement. Just remember to keep the few tips mentioned above, top-of-mind: listen, ask questions, avoid judgement, and recognize everyone has feelings. This will be a gradual learning process for many and requires real-world scenarios and mindful behavior. Remember, it starts at the top of the organization.