Empathy is inherently human. You probably can’t go a day without seeing some evidence of this emotional state, but the ability to identify with others’ feelings is not always central in the workplace. When deadlines become tight or projects go awry, it can be difficult to find the time to foster these interactions. Left unchecked, however, lack of empathy can present a fair share of problems.
Why is empathy important in the workplace? Put simply, a deep awareness and understanding of the people you work with has a direct impact on their productivity, engagement, and loyalty. It’s also fuel for better collaboration, retention, and morale.
Choosing to Build Empathy
Regrettably, cultivating empathy in the workplace is easier said than done. For one, empathy is a choice. Even if you’re an empathetic person, you must make a conscious decision to bring that quality to work each day. For those in leadership roles who have direct reports depending on them, it’s even more important to act and behave in a compassionate manner.
Leaders set the tone for an office — they lay the groundwork for company culture and signal to teams that empathy is a priority. If your leadership fails to provide room for this quality to grow, you might inadvertently thin your ranks. After all, 82% of employees would leave a job to work for a more empathetic employer.
Establishing smaller teams has certainly helped our company support greater empathy in the workplace. It’s only natural to build stronger connections with people you work closely with each day. You have shared experiences, and those experiences provide a glimpse into how your colleagues are feeling.
Another practice I followed in the past that helped build empathy in the workplace was asking co-workers to share a “rose” and “thorn” at the onset of meetings. Everyone would go around the room and share something positive and negative that happened to them recently. The topics were initially work-related, but that soon changed — and more and more personal stories emerged. People became more comfortable and began to empathize with one another, and everyone benefited as a result.
How to Develop Empathy in the Workplace
While the rose-and-thorn approach might not be ideal for every organization, a number of strategies are beneficial for building empathy in the workplace. The following steps are often the best places to start:
1. Meet regularly.
It’s challenging to establish a relationship with anyone when you only see each other sporadically. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings to correct course. Check in on current workloads, of course, but reserve some time to discuss growth opportunities. Are there any particular skills an employee would like to develop? Is there anything you can do to help team members reach their career goals? Getting to know direct reports is an effective way to nurture greater empathy in the workplace.
2. Be present.
Have you ever been in a meeting where nearly everyone was staring at their phones? In these situations, it’s hard to have much confidence that your words truly made an impact. Implement a no-devices rule in meetings. Even laptops should be left out of the room (unless you need the laptop to access information, of course). Fewer distractions increase the likelihood that people will actively listen during the discussion.
3. Be curious.
A core tenet of empathy is curiosity. When you take the time to understand a person’s thoughts, you come to a deeper, more empathetic understanding of that individual. Let’s say an employee mentions he’s tired. If you don’t ask why, you’d never know that he was up late last night to complete a project or to take care of a sick baby. Those insights do wonders for relationships.
4. Confirm conversations.
When someone is sharing, demonstrate that you’re listening by repeating (in your own words) what you heard. The mere act of “echoing” also reinforces your understanding of the individual, which is key to building empathy in the workplace. Besides, we all need help committing conversations to memory, and echoing is a helpful tool in this aspect.
5. Frame situations.
In leadership, you often find yourself serving as a sounding board. People come to you to hash things out. But you need to put things into perspective before you respond. Is this person just venting? Is she actually looking for advice? Probe for specifics and listen to the words the person uses to describe the situation. You’ll begin to hear whether she is speaking about herself or the other person. Context is important to how you treat the interaction.
6. Respect privacy.
Company policy often dictates employee privacy rights. But as a general rule, keep private any information shared in confidence — except in cases where harm might come to the individual, others, or the organization.
Empathy requires a degree of selflessness, which can be challenging during times of stress. People tend to turn inward, focusing more on themselves than others. But if you make empathy a priority — and choose to bring this quality to work each day — everyone else will eventually begin to follow your lead.