Empathy in the Workplace

The benefits of demonstrating an appropriate degree of care at work

By David Cox, SPHR, SHRM-SCP | June 15, 2017

Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of others. More than sympathy, empathy is the ability to understand and support others with compassion or sensitivity.

Empathy is often referred to as the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, be aware of their feelings, and understand their needs.

In the workplace, an empathetic employee often earns the respect of others when he/she demonstrates an appropriate degree of care for a co-worker facing difficult circumstances. Demonstrating empathy reinforces a team relationship and can lead to increases in productivity, morale, and loyalty. Empathy is a powerful tool in the “soft skill” set of respected employees and employers alike.

Surveys continue to show that we could all take a lesson from the nursing profession about being empathetic. Repeatedly, nurses rate among our most trusted professionals. Why? Because the empathy they demonstrate makes patients feel cared for and safe.

In preparing this article, I was surprised to learn that people who score high on assessments for empathy often have no idea why. When pressed for answers, their typical explanations include:

  • They like people.
  • They enjoy working with and helping others.
  • They value people as individuals.

In an effort to develop a deeper understanding of why empathy is important in the workplace, I offer two questions regarding the nature, role, and benefits of empathy.

  1. What traits/behaviors distinguish someone as empathetic?

    Empathy requires three things: listening, openness and understanding.

    Empathetic employees listen attentively to what you’re telling them, putting their complete focus on the person in front of them and not getting easily distracted. They spend more time listening than talking because they want to understand the difficulties others face, all of which helps them give the folks their listening to a feeling of being heard and understood.
    Empathetic employers and managers realize that the success of any business depends on their people. Therefore, they have an attitude of openness towards them as individuals and an understanding of the feelings and emotions of these employees.

  2. What role does empathy play in the workplace? Why does it matter?

    When we understand one another in the workplace, we have a better idea of the challenges ahead of us.

    DeLores Pressley, a best-selling author and nationally recognized motivational speaker, drives this point home by asking all of us in the workplace to consider the following benefits of being more empathetic:

    1. Empathy allows us to feel secure to learn from our failures because we won’t simply be blamed for them.
    2. Empathy encourages everyone to understand the root cause behind poor performance.
    3. Being empathetic allows all involved to help struggling employees improve and succeed.
    4. Empathy plays a major role in the workplace for every organization that will deal with failures, poor performance and employees who truly want to succeed. As leaders, our role is simple—deal empathetically with our team and watch them build a strong and prosperous organization.

If all of this is true, why aren’t we more empathetic at work? There are several possible reasons.

  • We’re busy and demonstrating empathy takes time and effort to show individuals more awareness and understanding.
  • It’s not always easy to understand an employee’s perspective or how they feel about a given situation.
  • It means putting others ahead of yourself, which can be challenging in today’s competitive workplace.
  • Many organizations are so focused on achieving goals that caring about employees has become a low priority.

As we consider the importance of empathy at work, perhaps we need to remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt:
“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

It is a truth that has long stood the test of time and still holds true today – in and out of the workplace.

David Cox


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