“Nobody builds a great friendship by talking all the time,” my high school English teacher told me once. “You make friends by being a great listener.”
I've carried that simple observation with me ever since. It was poignant during those teenage years at school — classmates trusted me and wanted to talk about the good and the bad. The lesson kept playing out as I entered (and later graduated from) college and continued into my professional life. In my current role, I have the privilege of mentoring people. This includes connecting with their joys and understanding their unique woes. People need to be heard, and I'm happy to receive.
So never mind misery — empathy loves company.
Why Is Empathy Important in the Workplace?
Prioritizing empathy at work has allowed me to understand how culture, relationships, and people interact. As a facilitator, this skill enables me to guide entire organizations toward meaningful and effective transformations. With a dose of empathy, these organizations can work more productively, create better pairings of people, and allocate roles or delegate responsibilities more effectively. After all, when people feel that you recognize what’s most important to them and what keeps them up at night, you unlock a deeper level of purpose.
Additionally, empathy works wonders for leaders, junior-level employees, and everyone in between. A leader simply cannot foster an optimal work environment without showing empathy for employees. With a willingness to connect with the multidimensional people in a team, they make room for co-workers to fail and try new things; such an approach creates an employee-centered company. If an organization can train its leaders to get the context from employees that can help create experiences and guide decisions, they build an environment that encourages experimentation and individual growth.
From the worker's point of view, being part of an empathetic culture enriches his or her sense of purpose. A worker being able to see a boss as a human being — an individual with interests and personal aspirations — is crucial for creating a sense of camaraderie between these parties. They can create happier and more productive working relationships by building this understanding and fostering transparency.
In short, empathy is important in the workplace because it establishes effective relationships. It’s a skill that has been absent from job descriptions and employee evaluations, but it’s beginning to appear in conversations about workplace health. Regardless, there's still a discrepancy between how leaders and employees understand empathy. According to the 2019 State of the Workplace Empathy study, 92% of CEOs believe they have an empathetic organization — but only 72% of their employees agree.
How Leaders Can Hire for and Prioritize Empathy
To bridge the gap between employees, bosses, and the workplace at large, leaders must actively craft a culture of empathy. This involves more than individuals listening to each other and asking questions — it’s empathy meeting design thinking to transform the workplace.
Start by seeking out empathy during the hiring process. You can do this by opening up the conversation at the interview stage to talk about relationships. When I interview candidates at Pariveda, for instance, I ask questions about their current and past interactions with peers and team members. I inquire about the human situations they mention and take into account the wording they use. Over time, you learn to hear how much candidates speak about themselves versus the other person, and you'll determine whether they're quick to judge or take the time to ask more questions.
This investigative conversation should clarify people’s natural levels of empathy and the ways they’re willing to work with others. Highly empathetic people will be mindful of context and will describe their colleagues’ situations in great detail. People who are lower in empathy will focus on themselves or jump toward judgmental outcomes.
Incorporating and gauging empathy in conversations can extend far beyond the interview room with prospective employees. You can add a touch of empathy to just about everything you do — and the morale of your teams will improve markedly. In fact, you'll see a snowball effect: You'll host better meetings that leave more room for diverse voices. You'll recover more quickly from office misunderstandings. You'll create a safer space for tough conversations so that teams are resilient. Empathy, after all, fosters unity.
Sure, challenges will arise along the way — like how to balance the personal and professional or how to lend support while maintaining an effective organizational structure — but when you’re practicing empathy, you’ll be far better at handling those challenges as a team. Take it from my former English teacher: Listening never goes out of style.