The importance of showing empathy in the workplace
Engagement 5 minute read

The importance of showing empathy in the workplace

Rise | February 12, 2019

Empathy in the workplace is extremely valuable, for leaders and employees alike. Not only does it create a better employee experience, but empathetic workplaces have lower turnover rates and higher productivity.

According to the 2018 State of Workplace Empathy study, 96% of employees consider it important for employers to demonstrate empathy, and yet 92% believe this trait is undervalued in their workplaces. 

There are many factors in the office setting that can affect your people from engaging in the understanding and sharing of emotions with their team members, including stress, deadlines, and distractedness. In effect, this can prevent employers from experiencing true empathetic connection with their employees, and in turn, prevent the true potential of your teams from being unlocked.

For people and culture professionals dedicated to improving team satisfaction and engagement in their organizations, recognizing and promoting the importance of empathy in the workplace is essential to building healthy work environments.

Why empathy matters

In the working environment, keeping calm and collected at work is considered the prime professional composure to maintain. As employees pride themselves on acting professional in the workplace, they try to keep their emotional state under wraps. However, by not feeling encouraged to bring their full, authentic selves to work, much potential is lost. 

For leadership and management leaders, from HR directors to executives to team leads, to be effective leaders to the people they lead, they need to integrate empathy into their communication with their team members. 

Improving organizational culture starts by improving relations between the people within it. Since organizations are about people, they should be given a chance to both create value and be valued at work. The impact of recognition from one’s team goes a long way in establishing trust and loyalty. Employees want to feel belonging and connection at work, and that relies on treating each other with empathy.

Trust-building can begin with habitually asking employees how they are feeling when big changes and sudden changes happen within the organization. Encourage your leaders and managers to give time and attention to their team members to foster greater empathy, which in turn enhances overall performance and improves their effectiveness at perception when it comes to identifying the emotions and feelings of their people.

By emphasizing the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace, your people can engage in their EQ and in soft skills that will make them be their full selves at work.

The business case for empathy

A study from Harvard Business Review found that empathetic companies outperform their more callous counterparts by 20 percent. When people feel understood themselves, they’re more receptive to others’ concerns—and team cohesion and collaboration follow suit. They’re also more apt to take risks, believing that they’ll be supported, rather than punished if they fail. 

A lack of genuine empathy at the company-wide level might be why your best customer service representative is suddenly writing curt emails, or why your standout software developer seems standoffish during every stand-up. When people don’t feel understood or cared for, they start to pull back, and thus, your team is not getting their best efforts. 

An empathetic workplace equals an engaged workforce, and that translates to business success.

Empathy through active listening

You can’t give your employees everything they want, but you can ensure everyone on your team feels heard.

Active listening is one of the best ways to demonstrate empathy in the workplace, as it lets the other person know they’ve been understood. As a listener, you should not be formulating your response while your team member is speaking to you. Instead, listen without judgment and let them know they’ve been heard by repeating your sense of what they’ve said back to them. 

Empathy in the workplace means making a genuine effort to understand where people are coming from and providing direction that leaves room for compromise and conflicting points of view. When you have to tell a team member something they won’t like, use what you learned while actively listening to soften the blow, thus letting them know you care. When your people feel respected, their trust in your organization will grow.

Taking empathy company-wide

Creating an empathetic workplace is on everyone in the organization.

According to Harvard Business Review, middle management and executive leaders require the most assistance in this department. There are a number of theories as to why that might be: greater responsibility leads to more stress, which can conflict with opportunities to show empathy. Perhaps high-level vision prevents executives from focusing on the emotional ins and outs of individual team members.

But Belinda Parmar, CEO of Lady Geek, puts forward another compelling hypothesis. She suggests that empathy is “the last big business taboo.” Associated with weakness, empathy might not be a trait that ambitious leaders want to be attached to their name.

If that’s the case in your company, it’s time to revisit your criteria for job candidate evaluation and employee performance measurement. As an example, one candidate boasts that the team has never, ever missed a deadline under their leadership. The other boosted their department’s retention rate by ten percent. In these cases, which candidate sounds like the more empathetic leader?

To cultivate compassion in the workplace, support leaders and managers who care about how their team members feel. Create a culture where empathy, perhaps even more than efficiency, is rewarded. You’ll find that encouraging the first just might improve the latter.

Basically, empathy is a natural human response—but hectic working conditions can impede it. When people are stressed out, empathy slips and self-involvement thrives, a combination which is ultimately bad for business.

As part of an overall strategic direction, people and culture professionals should take care to hone their own empathic ability, while encouraging similar behaviour company-wide. For a high performing and successful organization with motivated and engaged employees, it’s non-negotiable.

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