The topic of developing empathy doesn’t come up very often in the business world, but perhaps it should.
After all, 90% of all employees believe that empathy is an important workplace value, and eight in ten are willing to leave an employer who isn’t empathetic, according to the 2018 Businessolver State of Workplace Empathy Study.
In this tutorial, you’ll learn what empathy is and why it’s important in the workplace, and then you’ll learn how to show empathy more often in your working life. Finally, we’ll look at how to build empathy within your company as a whole, through empathy training and other techniques.
So, if you’re ready, let’s get started with a simple question: what is empathy?
1. What Is Empathy?
Before we can learn to be empathetic, we need to be clear about what empathy is. According to Psychology Today:
“Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own.”
(As a side note, you may be surprised to learn that the word “empathy” was invented in 1908 by psychologists looking for a way to translate the German term Einfühlung, which literally means “feeling in.” So although empathy is as old as humanity, the word for it in English is of relatively recent origin.)
Even if you think you’re not a particularly empathetic person, you probably already practice empathy in some form. You can get better at it (as we’ll discuss later), but the capacity for empathy exists in the brains of humans and other animals thanks to our aptly named “mirror neurons” that help us to read signals and understand at least to some extent what others are thinking and feeling.
But empathy is about more than just feeling. It’s about action. As Psychology Today’s definition continues:
“Empathy facilitates prosocial (helping) behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced, so that we behave in a more compassionate manner.”
In business, showing empathy could take many forms, and we’ll look at some of them in more detail later. But a lot of it comes down to listening to and understanding your employees, and then acting in ways that show you empathize with them.
For example, if you’re an empathetic boss, you show interest in your employees as full human beings, not just workers. You know what’s important to them, inside and outside work.
So, when you've got to ask your team to work over the weekend for an important client project, you don’t just tell them, “I need this by Monday morning.” You understand that you’re asking a lot of them, and you take the time to explain why it’s necessary and to figure out ways in which everyone can share the workload so that people can still make the family commitments that are important to them.
2. Why Empathy Is Important in the Workplace
We’ve already looked at some pretty striking statistics in support of empathy in the workplace. The vast majority of employees believe it’s important and would leave an employer that doesn’t practice empathy.
But even if those numbers don’t convince you, there are plenty of other reasons to focus on developing empathy. Here are a few:
1. Understand Your Employees and Coworkers
As we saw in the last section, empathy is, at its heart, about understanding. It’s the ability to walk in another person’s shoes. So if you can learn how to build empathy, you can also do a better job of understanding your employees.
This will make you a better leader or manager. If you really take the time to know and understand people and to figure out what makes them tick, it stands to reason that you can do a better job of managing them. Or, if you’re not in a leadership role, you’ll be a more effective team worker.
2. Understand Your Customers
Empathy doesn’t end at the office doors. You can also gain some great benefits by empathizing with your customers. As we’ve seen in other tutorials (e.g. this one on coming up with startup ideas), an important component of a good business idea is that it solves a problem or “pain point” for your customers.
The same principle applies beyond the initial idea phase too. Providing a good service to your customers means understanding what they want or need, and then giving it to them. Developing empathy can help you to become more adept at walking in your customers’ shoes and either improving your products or designing new ones to deal with their pain points.
3. Better Productivity
Teams that display empathy are often more productive. A study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that the “collective intelligence” of a group, i.e. its ability to complete tasks effectively, depended not on the individual intelligence of group members, but on:
“the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.”
The researchers measured “social sensitivity” with a test of the ability to recognize emotions in others, which sounds a lot like empathy. Letting other people speak is also a way of showing empathy, as we’ll see in the next section. So if you want teams that perform better, you don’t need the “smartest guys in the room.” You need the most empathetic people in the room.
4. Better Teamwork
Empathy is a key ingredient of good teamwork. Conflict is an inevitable part of working with other people who'll have different ideas about the best way to get things done. If you can truly understand where the other person is coming from, you can resolve that conflict in a healthy way and incorporate a wider range of ideas, which will lead to better teamwork and decision-making.
Empathy is particularly important when dealing with diverse teams full of people from different cultural backgrounds. As we’ve seen in our series on workplace diversity, diverse teams tend to function better, but there can be some challenges incorporating diverse viewpoints. Showing empathy helps you to understand people from different backgrounds and reap the benefits of diversity.
3. How to Develop and Show Empathy
So now that we’ve covered what empathy is and why it’s important, I’m sure you want to know how to build empathy and how to be more empathetic in your business life. In this section, we’ll look at some empathy examples and see how to develop empathy in the workplace.
1. Ask Questions and Listen to the Answers
Some managers think that their job is about talking a lot and telling people what to do. The best managers, however, understand that listening is by far the more important skill to develop. It’s also the first step towards developing empathy.
After all, as we saw at the beginning, empathy is about understanding another person's thoughts and feelings from their point of view. So you can’t just look at them and make assumptions—you need to ask intelligent questions and pay close attention to the answers.
You can start to do this in your day-to-day interactions from now on. For example, if someone comes to you with a problem, don’t just tell them what to do, but seek to understand what’s going on and what you can do to help.
Also try to make time for informal contact with each of your team members on a regular basis. Go to lunch, or grab a coffee, and encourage them to talk about their experiences in the workplace as well as their lives outside. Listen closely, and try to see things from their point of view.
2. Look for Context
Often, when working in a company—particularly a large one—you’ll come across something a colleague has done that doesn’t seem to make sense. Your immediate reaction may be to blame the person who did it, but when you learn how to be more empathetic, you’ll be able to reach a deeper understanding.
For example, let’s say you’re struggling with a poorly built IT system. It has so many flaws that you think the developer didn't know what they were doing and should be fired.
But when you talk to the developer and look for context, you realize that they had to build the system without sufficient time or resources, while balancing the contradictory demands of several different executives. They see the flaws and wants to fix them, but they now manage three other projects that their manager tells them are the new priorities, so they can’t spend time fixing the old system.
By showing empathy for the developer, you not only built a better relationship with them, but you also reached a deeper understanding of some of the issues in the company, which you can now try to fix.
3. Speak Face to Face
Technology is great, of course. But it’s harder to build empathy over email or a Slack conversation than face to face. There are so many emotional cues that we pick up on through things like facial expressions and body language, and those cues are lost in text-only media. Emoticons are poor substitutes for real human emotions.
So, if you’re in the habit of sending emails to people who work about ten feet away from you, try to break that habit. Get up and walk over to your colleague’s desk, and talk through the issue face to face. Email may still be useful for some things, e.g. where you need to convey a lot of data or attach documents to work on, but if it’s just a simple question, ask it face to face.
4. Test Yourself
If you want to understand how empathetic you are right now and see if you improve over time, try this online version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, devised by Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge.
It doesn’t measure empathy exactly—there’s no simple test that'll do that—but understanding other people’s emotions is a key component of practicing empathy, so it’ll give you a good idea of where you stand.
5. Read a Good Book
This one may surprise you, since this is a business tutorial. But reading a novel—particularly a work of literary fiction—has been shown to help readers develop empathy.
That’s because literary fiction focuses on the psychology of characters and their relationships. As you read a good novel, your mind is working to understand those characters and to see the world from their point of view. That’s what empathy is all about.
6. Flexibility and Respect
Going back to that 2018 Businessolver State of Workplace Empathy Study that we looked at earlier, more than 90% of employees across all age groups believe that these behaviors are important for displaying empathy:
- making time to talk 1:1 about work issues
- understanding the need for flexible working hours and time off for personal, family or medical issues
- respecting personal working styles
So, try to display those behaviors wherever possible. Keep in mind that they may sometimes be in conflict, too. For example, respecting personal working styles may mean understanding that a certain employee doesn’t want lots of meetings and prefers to deal with work issues by some other method. If you listen to your employees and follow the other techniques we’ve looked at, you should be in good shape to know what will work for each individual employee.
4. How to Build Empathy in Your Company
Once you’re practicing empathy yourself, you’ll want to spread it more widely in the organization. Here’s how to build empathy in your company culture:
1. Organize Empathy Training
The skills we've talked about today can be taught, and one of the most effective ways to broaden their adoption is to arrange empathy training for your employees.
Empathy training is on the rise, with about 20% of U.S. employers offering it, including large firms like LinkedIn, Tesla Motors, Cisco Systems, and Ford Motor Company. So look for a provider in your area and arrange a session.
As well as imparting skills, the fact that you arranged the training will show people that you value empathy and take it seriously.
2. Reward Empathy
When you want to encourage a certain behavior in your organization, you reward it. You can do this in multiple ways, and it doesn’t have to be formal or complicated. When you see someone doing a good job of asking questions and listening and showing empathy, for example, you could simply praise that person in front of the rest of the team.
You could also mention empathy when making important announcements. For example, write a note saying, “I’m promoting Sarah to be team leader because of her extensive experience and her strong leadership and empathy skills, which make her the perfect person to take the team forward.” When people see it being rewarded, they’ll have an incentive to learn how to be empathetic themselves.
3. Tweak Your Hiring Process
You probably look for a lot of qualities in the employees you hire. But do you look for empathy?
If not, make it part of the criteria by which you assess candidates. Devise interview questions that encourage candidates to show how they practice empathy and to give empathy examples from their previous work experience.
After all, a great way to ensure that empathy is a part of your workplace culture in the future is to hire people who already display the qualities you’re looking for.
In this tutorial, we’ve looked at how to be empathetic and build a culture of empathy in the workplace.
We’ve answered questions like “What is empathy?” and “How do you show empathy in the workplace?” We’ve looked at some techniques you can start using today, and we’ve seen some research to back up those techniques.
I hope this was useful for you. If you enjoyed it, why not check out some of our other articles on effective workplace communication?