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Why Empathy Matters at Work

It’s critical for companies to hire and develop more effective managers and leaders capable of moving their organization forward during both good and challenging times.

That requires looking beyond traditional strategies for management development, and cultivating the skills most important for success. One of those skills, perhaps unexpectedly, is empathy – a vital leadership competency. Empathetic leadership means having the ability to understand the needs of others, and being aware of their feelings and thoughts. Unfortunately, it has long been a soft skill that’s overlooked as a performance indicator. Research has shown that today’s successful leaders must be more “person-focused” and able to work well with people from varying teams, departments, countries, cultures, and backgrounds.

The ability to be compassionate and connect with others is critical to our lives, both personally and professionally. Demonstrating empathy – a key part of emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness – also improves human interactions in general and can lead to more effective communication and positive outcomes, in both work and home settings.

Defining Empathy in the Workplace

Empathy is the ability to perceive and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others. Those with high levels of empathy are skilled at understanding a situation from another person’s perspective and reacting with compassion. In the workplace, this simply means that your people are able to establish true, empathetic connections with one another that enhance relationships and performance.

It’s important to remember the difference between sympathy and empathy, as the 2 are often confused.

  • Sympathy is typically defined by feelings of pity for another person, without really understanding what it’s like to be in their situation.

  • Empathy, on the other hand, refers to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

Empathy is often more productive, especially when used in the workplace.

1. Watch for signs of overwork in others

Work burnout is a real problem today, and comes at a greater risk during times of intense stress and pressure, such as the current COVID-19 crisis we’re dealing with on a global scale. Many people are stressed, putting in more hours than ever before, and finding it difficult to separate work and home life.

Managers who are skilled at empathetic leadership are able to recognize signs of overwork in others before burnout becomes an issue that results in disengagement or turnover. This might mean taking a few extra minutes each week to check in with team members and gauge how they’re handling their current workload, and helping them to recover from overwork.

2. Show sincere interest in the needs, hopes, and dreams of other people

Part of leading with empathy involves working to understand the unique needs and goals of each team member and how to best match work assignments to contribute to both performance and employee satisfaction. Team members who see that their manager recognizes them in this way are more engaged and willing to go the extra mile.

3. Demonstrate willingness to help an employee with personal problems

Lines between work and personal life are becoming increasingly blurred, especially during the current crisis situation. Empathetic managers understand that their team members are dynamic individuals who are shouldering personal problems while having to maintain their professional responsibilities. They recognize that it’s part of their role to lead and support those team members when they need it most. Keeping open lines of communication and encouraging transparency is a good way to foster psychological safety and help team members feel comfortable sharing when it’s necessary.

4. Show compassion when other people disclose a personal loss

Real connections and friendships at work matter, and empathetic leadership is a tool that managers can use to establish bonds with those they’re privileged to lead. We’ve all been through personal loss, so even if we can’t relate to the specific loss our team member experiences, we can act empathetically and let them know they’re supported.

How Organizations Can Encourage Empathy in the Workplace

Some people are naturally more empathetic than others and will have an advantage over their peers who have difficulty expressing empathy. Most leaders fall in the middle and are sometimes or somewhat empathetic. Fortunately, empathy is not a fixed trait. It can be learned. If given enough time and support, leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training, or developmental opportunities and initiatives. Organizations can encourage a more empathetic workplace and help managers improve their empathy skills in a number of simple ways:

1. Talk about empathy

Let managers know that empathy matters. Many managers consider task-orienting skills such as monitoring and planning to be more important to controlling the performance of their team members. But research shows that understanding, caring, and developing others is just as important, if not more important, particularly in today’s workforce. Explain that giving time and attention to others fosters empathy, which in turn enhances your performance and improves your perceived effectiveness.

2. Teach listening skills

To understand others and sense what they’re feeling, managers must be good listeners, skilled in active listening techniques, who let others know that they’re being heard and express understanding of concerns and problems. When a manager is a good listener, people feel respected, and trust can grow. Managers should focus on listening to hear the meaning behind what others are saying by paying attention to not only the words being said, but also the feelings and values being shown, through nonverbal cues such as tone, pace of speech, facial expressions, and gestures.

3. Encourage genuine perspective-taking

Managers should consistently put themselves in the other person’s place. For managers, this includes taking into account the personal experience or perspective of their employees. It also can be applied to solving problems, managing conflicting, or driving innovation. To lead in our changing world, understand the role social identity plays for you and others.

4. Cultivate compassion

Support managers who care about how someone else feels or consider the effects that business decisions have on employees, customers, and communities. Go beyond the standard-issue values statement and allow time for compassionate reflection and response.

5. Support global managers

The ability to be empathetic and collaborate across boundaries is especially important for leaders working in global or cross-cultural organizations. Working across cultures requires managers to understand people who have very different perspectives and experiences. Empathy generates an interest in and appreciation for others, paving the way to more productive working relationships.

As managers hone their empathetic leadership skills, they improve their leadership effectiveness and increase their chances of success in the job. Empathetic leaders are assets to organizations, in part, because they are able to effectively build and maintain relationships — a critical part of leading organizations anywhere in the world.

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