Empathy is a pillar of the human experience. Living in a society means we need to understand each other so we can better work together. Well, work is just the same.
While empathy has been relegated to the background as a “weakness” in business for many years, leaders are now understanding its tremendous value to create a positive work environment.
Wondering how walking a mile in your coworkers’ shoes can help? Here’s why practicing empathy at work matters.
What’s empathy, really?
By definition, empathy is the ability to both understand and share the feelings of others. Being empathetic is seeing things from the other person’s perspective – putting yourself in their shoes if you will.
According to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, empathy is composed of three parts:
Cognitive empathy – understanding someone’s perspective intellectually
Emotional empathy – physically feeling what the other person is feeling
Compassionate empathy – sharing someone else's emotions while maintaining a sense of self to effectively support them
There can sometimes be some confusion between empathy and sympathy. The difference lies in the perspective you use. Sympathy is the genuine concern one can feel for someone else experiencing physical or emotional pain. It’s expressed from your point of view, though, while empathy implies a more active effort to see the situation through the other person’s eyes.
Finally, compassion is defined as the motivation to help relieve someone else’s pain when confronted with it. It’s an emotional response to empathy or sympathy and what drives us to action.
Why empathy has a place at work
There are various ways practicing empathy at work can help foster positive relationships.
It makes you happier
Empathy is good for your mood, for a start. It might sound like a selfish reason, but we could all do with a little more happiness, couldn’t we? Practicing empathy at work gives you more perspective and helps you work on your emotional regulation.
Research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology suggests that happiness comes from trying to make others feel good, rather than oneself.
It gives a sense of purpose
Do you feel proud when you do something generous or selfless? Doing good and helping others can give you a sense of purpose that gives more meaning to your work. It’s also a great way to boost your motivation at work.
In a survey by McKinsey, 70% of employees said their personal sense of purpose was defined by their work. While not everyone necessarily feels this external purpose in their day-to-day work, having an impact at work can feed into this sense of drive and motivation.
It builds connections
Empathy helps you connect with others in a more authentic way. It will help you create a more tight-knit work community and even turn your coworkers into genuine friends.
Thanks to empathy, we “humanize” others more and get to know the real them rather than what we project. It creates a sense of trust that makes people feel more and better supported, which is particularly important if your colleague is going through a difficult time.
It helps solve conflicts
Using empathy is an effective way to choose the appropriate response to conflict. By looking at the situation from the other person’s perspective, you’re able to understand their motives better.
Instead of building tension on misunderstandings and assumptions, empathy is a way to find a common ground and a more effective solution while making both parties feel heard and respected.
It makes you a better leader
Whether you’re a manager, a CEO, or simply leading a project, empathy is a tremendous tool to grow your leadership skills. Practicing it will help you better understand the needs, experiences, and even potential of your team.
If you’re open to hearing their feelings, thoughts, and ideas, you’re fostering trust and creating a space where they can feel heard and respected. By being in tune with your team, you’re showing how much you value their input. Such a positive and open work environment can boost their morale and, as a result, their engagement and productivity.
It makes work more inclusive
Empathy is an essential factor to drive more diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. It’s a great tool to reduce discrimination. In a study published in the American Psychological Association, researchers found that perspective-taking reduced automatic expressions of racist bias.
Practicing empathy helps us understand that a situation can be lived and perceived differently by different people. Acknowledging the diversity of people’s experiences is key to creating a space where everyone feels safe and welcome to apply, work, and progress in their careers.
It drives more productive collaboration
We work better together when we understand each other. Putting yourself in your coworkers’ shoes is a helpful way to communicate more efficiently. When you really listen to them with the intention of understanding where they’re coming from, you’re avoiding unhelpful repetitions and driving the conversation forward.
It will also make you more flexible and spark a more creative exchange of ideas by bringing a fresh perspective to the project. You won’t come to a meeting with a defensive attitude and a unique idea of what’s right and what works, but with an open mind, ready to find solutions together.
It creates a kinder work culture
Give, and you shall receive! People are more likely to engage in supportive behavior and put themselves in your shoes if you practice empathy yourself. It’s a question of reciprocation, as shown in various studies such as Empathy: A clue for prosociality and driver of indirect reciprocity.
Spreading empathetic behavior at work helps create a positive environment and fosters a culture of knowledge-sharing, patience, and compassion. A workplace is a community, and encouraging people to show empathy makes it a more supportive one. It’s a great way to boost employee retention, too!