Empathy in the WorkplaceHow to Create it and Why it Works

Coworkers supporting one another.

In the workplace, the people who go above and beyond will be noticed. Plain and simple, talent floats. There are a lot of people who go to work ambivalent about what they are doing and the people with which they are working. One way to stand out in the crowd right away is doing the opposite of that — invest in your job and the people with which you share your day.

It may sound trivial, but practicing empathy in the workplace can go a long way in boosting your success, productivity, and your enjoyment in your job. After all, if you’re going to work every day, what’s the point of not putting in 100 percent?

What is Empathy?

The word ‘empathy’ is thrown around a lot, but what exactly does it mean? Well, to put it simply, empathy is the ability to understand the way someone else is feeling; taking the time to put yourself in another person’s shoes by considering their thoughts and emotions.

For a more comprehensive look, psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman broke the concept into three categories.

The 3 Types of Empathy

1. Cognitive

Definition: Cognitive empathy is the predominantly conscious drive to register and understand what another person may be thinking or feeling.

It is also known as “perspective taking” and is a more “conscious, deliberate, and abstract process involving higher levels of abstraction” than the other types of empathy, requiring no emotional engagement from the observer.

How to practice it in the workplace: Cognitive empathy is useful in many circumstances in the workplace. For leaders, it can be practiced by taking the time to try and observe the perspectives of team members, which can lead to a better management style.

Other employees can practice this too by trying to better read a room or going out of the way to choose the correct tone for a specific customer or situation.

2. Emotional/Affective

Definition: Emotional empathy takes cognitive empathy to the next level. It doesn’t just require knowing how someone feels, but understanding that person on a deeper level and developing a genuine connection with them. It is also described as affective empathy because it affects you.

How to practice it in the workplace: It’s important not to overdo it with emotional empathy because it can lead to burnout or boundary crossing, but there are ways to be emotionally empathetic in the workplace that can build trust and honesty.

The best way to do this is by building a genuine rapport with someone through meaningful one-on-one conversations where you are giving your full attention to that person.

3. Compassionate/Empathic Concern

Definition: Further still, compassionate empathy builds on the other two kinds, but is unique in that it elicits an active response.

“It involves not only having concern for another person, and sharing their emotional pain, but also taking steps to reduce it,” for which someone must go out of their way.

How to practice it in the workplace: Listen to the problems of your co-workers or employees and figure out if there is a way you can help without intruding.

Maybe someone is having an issue at home? Ask them if they want to take time off to figure it out. Maybe someone feels stifled creatively? Try and find work for them that challenges and fulfills them;

However, compassionate empathy can be accomplished even more easily. It can be as simple as taking the time to learn people’s names and smiling at them as you pass in the hall.

How Empathy Pays Off for Business

In theory, acting with empathy toward others may not sound too difficult. However, in a fast-paced office environment, it can be a tricky feat.

The results make it worth it, though, argues founder and motivational speaker DeLores Pressley, who explains that empathy in the workplace “can show a deep respect for co-workers and show that you care, as opposed to just going by rules and regulations.”

This can boost the likeability and trustworthiness of a manager or executive, or improve the enthusiasm and productivity of a team.

In fact, today, being an empathetic leader is make or break. Employees have become more outspoken about their experiences at companies, especially those with negative work environments, but the issue still pervades.

A Workplace Empathy Monitor report by Rae Shanahan, the chief strategy officer at Businessolver, found that 80 percent of employees believe U.S. organizations need to improve their empathy for workers; while only 57 percent of CEOs agreed with this statement.

Clearly, there are a number of executives out there who are not properly listening to their teams, and if they’re not careful, they’re going to lose them. This report concluded that 93 percent of employees say they’re more likely to stay with an empathetic employer and that “empathy is clearly the competitive edge leaders are missing.”

Empathy quite literally pays off for business. According to the same study, Ninety-one percent of CEOs believe empathy is linked directly to a company’s financial performance; and they are not wrong — creating an office environment with a foundation of empathy has both interpersonal and monetary benefits.

Empathy improves communication, morale, and trust, which means that people can work more effectively and enthusiastically with each other, listening to and benefiting from each others’ unique perspectives.

This boost in productivity and creativity will obviously benefit the company, making the efforts well worth it. Forty percent of employees say they would work longer hours for an empathetic employer. Additionally, from an ethical approach, it’s only right to care about the physical and mental health, and happiness of employees.

Simple Ways to Practice Empathy

Learn Everyone’s Names and Smile

Smile more when interacting with your co-workers and try to learn their names. This relays the message that you are happy to be talking with them, which will encourage them to open up to you, building a connection.

Listen to Others

It’s a bad habit many of us have, but when you’re talking to someone, try not to be on your phone or your laptop. Give people your full attention during a conversation and it’ll go a long way in showing that you care about what they’re saying and how they’re feeling.

Treat People with Respect

If you’re in a frustrating conversation or situation, take a deep breath and make sure you are expressing yourself calmly. Nobody wants to be talked down to or shouted at in the workplace, so make sure you are treating others how you want to be treated.

Ask People for Their Opinions

When possible, ask other people for their perspectives on decisions you’re making in the workplace. It will foster collaboration and also, their wisdom may help you make a better decision.

Identify Your Personal Biases

It’s important to be introspective about your ability to empathize with others in order to hone this skill. You can also ask for feedback from friends or peers on this subject.

Give People Recognition

Show people that you’re paying attention to what they’re doing by complimenting their work. Recognizing talent and hard work is a great way of encouraging people to give more.

Ask More Questions

This is a good policy for life. It shows that you are listening and engaged with a conversation; it also demonstrates curiosity which is an extremely valuable quality.

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