"Take the emotion out of it! This isn’t personal; it is business.” That was the response received early in my colleague's career from her boss when sharing a tough client situation. She had reached out to him for guidance to talk through an issue but he quickly diminished her need. She felt completely dismissed.
Had her boss taken the time to show empathy for her perspective, that interaction could have strengthened their work relationship and empowered her, creating greater loyalty and dedication to the job. Empathy is missing in many workplaces and is often considered "soft." However, it is a crucial skill personally and professionally.
Why Empathy Is a Crucial Skill in Business
Empathy is about genuinely looking to understand someone else’s perspective, which creates connection. Thinking about what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes helps to create an understanding of their experience in a genuine way. Empathy is a key component of emotional intelligence and vital in business and leadership.
Interactions between people are a part of every business at varying levels. People are dynamic, and not everyone experiences the workplace in the same way. Every aspect of our lives affects our perspective and how we see the world. These varying perspectives can create conflicts and misunderstandings among those within a company and anyone that does business with them.
Although many people might see our personal and professional lives as separate, it is impossible to separate them. Why? Because we are human beings with thoughts, feelings, and opinions that affect all areas of our lives, even our workplace.
Our country and the entire world continue to face the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and current inequality issues. Many have been deeply affected. Empathy is critical, now more than ever and an empathetic workplace imperative.
Our emotions and feelings cannot simply be left at the door as we cross the threshold of the workplace. Interacting with leaders, employees, colleagues, and clients with empathy acknowledges our differences. Who we are and how we feel need to be welcomed and encouraged at work and through our business transactions.
Empathy can make a big difference. It helps to dissipate intense emotions, shift perspectives, and positively affect the outcome for all involved. Not only is it beneficial for individuals, but businesses reap the benefits as well.
Deep Dive: What Is Empathy and Why Is It Important?
What Are the Benefits of Empathy in Businesses?
A supportive environment that looks to understand people has many payoffs in the business world. Some of the positive effects of empathy:
- Increases workplace morale
- Improves effectiveness and work habits
- Helps employees navigate through change and obstacles
- Promotes effective leadership
- Creates healthy, collaborative teams
Empathy helps to weave a healthy organizational culture. A workplace where employees feel understood, heard, and valued by authentic leaders and their peers cultivates the soil for a robust environment. According to Wikipedia, company or organizational culture “encompasses values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of a business.”
|“If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.” ~Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos|
Results of a Thriving Culture in the Workplace
- Fulfilled, engaged employees
- Increased company performance and profits
- Satisfied customers
- Higher employee retention
- Effective teams
- Creativity and idea-sharing
If a thriving and empathetic culture is so important and has copious benefits, then why is it so challenging to build?
Obstacles of Empathy in the Workplace
A lack of understanding of the concept and its importance or a lack of skills are common obstacles to empathy. The erroneous perspective that emotional intelligence and empathy are difficult, or that they do not come naturally to everyone is also a fundamental obstacle. Empathy is a skill that can be learned. And it must also be nurtured, practiced, and exemplified consistently to build a thriving culture.
Company leadership under relentless expectations for high performance can eclipse empathy and make it an unfamiliar concept. However, when employees are valued and feel free to volunteer their ideas, productivity and performance increase.
Deep dive: "What Is Empathy and Why Is It Important?"
What Are the Consequences of a Lack of Empathy in the Workplace?
The repercussions of a company void of empathy are vast. A lack of employee engagement, internal conflicts, continual miscommunication, misuse of company resources, low retention, and high employee turnover are just a few.
The 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Study by Business Solver says that although leaders increasingly understand that empathy is important, their employees are not feeling it. This discrepancy between these perceptions is called the “empathy gap.”
“92 percent of CEOs say their organization is empathetic, while 72 percent of employees say they work for an empathetic employer, down 6 percent from previous years.”
The same study also said that the employees are beginning to expect empathy from employers and are willing to change jobs to find it. “82% of employees would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organization.”
My colleague's experience with her boss’ lack of empathy strained their professional relationship and she soon left the company. It became clear that she could not count on him for support. This leader (like many others) was reactionary and uninterested in an employee's experience or the company culture, which spelled a recipe for employee burnout.
Developing and fostering a culture of empathy takes a concerted effort and a willingness to continue to grow and change. There are many ways to start practicing empathy in your workplace.
3 Ways to Increase Empathy between Employees
Increasing empathy between co-workers creates a cohesive team environment by increasing camaraderie among employees. Here are three ways to start building and practicing your empathy skills.
- Listen to understand, not to respond – Take the time to learn about your co-workers and truly listen. If you are thinking about what you are going to say, you are not truly listening. Empathy comes more naturally and easily when we know more about who our co-workers are.
- Show respect in actions and words – Uncaring comments and a sarcastic or sharp tone can damage work relationships. Be aware of both when interacting with co-workers. By observing and shifting your tone, you can dramatically improve relationships.
- Look to understand others’ roles – Understanding a co-worker’s role and responsibilities fosters a good working relationship and team dynamic. It also can open doors for collaboration and the sharing of the workload or skills to carry out tasks and goals more effectively.
3 Ways to Increase Empathy in Leadership
Leaders have influence, and therefore, an increased opportunity—and responsibility—to spread goodwill. They can build on the above recommendations a bit further in their role and model a culture of empathy, decreasing the empathy gap.
- Take the time to get to know your team – Be present, ask questions, and listen. Knowing your team well can help you better utilize their strengths. When you make connections throughout your day, it helps employees feel valued. As morale rises, your interactions can help them achieve their goals more successfully by meeting or exceeding company goals.
- Get clear on leadership areas where you can increase your skills and practice – Raising self-awareness is the first step toward more effective leadership. Any leader who wants to learn and grow can become skilled in empathy.
- Lead by example – Empathy is best understood and learned when it is experienced. Model the actions and behavior that you wish to foster in your teams.
For more on empathy, read: “The Three Kinds of Empathy: Emotional, Cognitive, Compassionate.”
When leaders help employees feel heard and understood, empathy grows and gets reinforced in a culture. Empathy is strengthened through practice, especially when leaders reinforce it by their example. All interpersonal or emotional intelligence skills can be mastered with patience and consistency. Those who take the time and make the effort will be rewarded with a thriving business culture.
If you would like to sharpen your empathy skills as an employee, manager, or leader, Heartmanity offers customized support and executive coaching along with leadership and team training to help businesses thrive.
Check out www.heartmanity.com/business or contact us.