Empathy at Work: How Caring Supports Successful Workplaces

Workplace Organization
November 25, 2021

For a time, empathy and caring were considered the opposite of effective corporate culture. Maybe even today, leaders believe they must choose between caring for their people and driving results. 

After all, balancing these priorities is one of the biggest struggles of being a boss.

But do leaders need to choose between these two ends of the spectrum? Is it possible to have both? Jamil Zaki, a psychologist and foremost researcher on the study of empathy, believes so.

In a recent Fast Company article, he asserts that companies often find themselves caught between these two competing priorities—empathy VS efficiency, but he claims it's a false duality. In other words, he argues companies don't have to choose between the two.

In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that empathy could lead to greater organizational performance. Ultimately, empathy is not the antithesis of productivity but rather one of the key factors in maximizing efficiency at work.

A case for empathy in the workplace

According to Psychology Today, empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share another person's feelings. In other words, an empathic person understands the needs of others and is sensitive to their emotions. Empathy is crucial to establishing strong relationships and enhancing group dynamics at work.

Given the increasing demands and stresses of modern life and the surge of worker burnout, promoting empathy in the workplace is becoming even more critical to fostering healthy, happy, and productive workplace cultures.

A few studies and research reveal the impact of empathy at work:

  • Employees who feel their companies lack empathy are more likely to burn out and call in sick with stress-related illnesses. (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes)
  • 76% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being engaged, compared to only 32% of people with less empathic senior leaders. (Catalyst)
  • The majority (86%) of employees believe empathetic leadership boosts morale while 87% of employees say empathy is essential to fostering an inclusive environment. (EY Consulting)

The research is undisputed: showing empathy at work contributes to greater employee well-being and happiness. In turn, this leads to greater engagement, efficiency, and productivity in the workplace. 

But when it comes to a soft skill like empathy, it isn’t always clear how to practice it. This is not something that can be boiled down to an exact formula. 

Nevertheless, you don’t need to be a mental health expert to practice empathy. There are actionable steps leaders can take to build greater empathy in their team. Next, we’ll dive into a few examples of empathy at work so you can take steps toward creating a more empathetic work environment.

6 Ways to Increase Empathy In The Workplace

1. Practice active listening

When an employee comes to you with an issue, your first instinct might be to jump straight into fix-it mode.

You might do this by:

  • Offering advice ("Have you tried this?),
  • Trying to change their perspective ("Others have it worse.")
  • Offering unhealthy positivity ("Try to stay positive.")

Of course, sometimes people want practical advice or need to hear a voice of logic. But oftentimes, when we go into fix-it mode, we unwittingly fail to understand the other person effectively. 

The antidote is active listening. In leadership, active listening means paying attention, understanding, and remembering what others say. It's not just about hearing words; it's about making an effort to make people feel heard. 

According to Very Well Mind, a few techniques are involved in practicing active listening. For example, being fully present, making eye contact, and asking open-ended questions.

In other words, before rushing to offer practical advice or fixes, you should ask questions and validate their feelings. These small gestures in conversation will go a long way to making people feel you genuinely care about them. 

2. Ask for people’s opinions

Empathy requires understanding the needs of others. But you can’t read people’s minds; you have to take the time to ask them about their wants, needs, and opinions. Taking action in this area goes a long way to demonstrating that you care and creating a compassionate work environment. 

In other words, as a leader, acting with empathy means involving your team in big decisions. Interestingly, a Salesforce report showed that employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6X more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work. Employees are more productive when they feel they are being heard.

Of course, that’s not to say every single decision requires your entire team's final approval. Nevertheless, gathering feedback and input from your team is a great way to show that you value their opinions and perspectives. 

3. Be proactive and offer assistance

Being responsive and available to your team is the cornerstone of empathetic leadership. But it's not enough to express to your employees that you are available and then proceed to disappear into your own world. 

If you don't show employees you care, it may be difficult for them to trust and come to you. A core component of building trust is showing you care about your employees through your actions. Not just your words. 

In other words, instead of simply stating you're available to them, why not show them? For example, an empathetic leader is sensitive to the climate of a team and can feel when their team is stressed or if there is tension. In this case, they will take the time to ask questions, listen, and find out how they can help. Empathetic leaders are proactive. They won't sit back and wait until a fire is burning to take action; they will try and catch the ember before it turns into a fiery blaze. 

4. Show interest in employees' goals and development

As a leader, you know that employees are much more than what they produce for your team. They have their own dreams, goals, and aspirations. They have their own passions and interests. Leading with empathy means getting to know your employees on a deeper level and supporting their career development.

That said, "employee career development" can feel like a vague, ambiguous goal. But it all starts with a conversation. It involves getting to know your employees, what skills they want to grow, what they are passionate about, and what long-term goals they want to achieve. 

You have to set aside time for these conversations, which can be hard to do when a million other tasks are competing for your time. Yet, it makes your effort even more meaningful. When employees see how busy you are but still make the time to discuss their development, that will go a long way to making them feel valued. 

5. Be flexible and understanding

By its very nature, work entails structure and process. A team can't achieve results, and a large-scale organization can't function without guardrails. 

But, like all things, structure exists on a continuum. A need for structure can veer into inflexibility and rigidity if taken too far. Cultures like this undermine caring, empathy, and understanding.

For example, if employees come to you with a problem or concern, and you respond to them with, "That's just the way things work" or "That's the policy," without offering them any solutions or thinking deeper about the root problem at play. Such extreme inflexibility will undoubtedly make them feel ignored.

Being flexible and understanding means trying to devise a solution that benefits everyone. Even if an issue is out of your control, it also means validating your employees' issues and concerns. In other words, being flexible shows you care about your employees not just as workers but as individual people. 

6. Share your appreciation

Recognizing and appreciating employees' efforts is one of the best ways to show them you care. On the flip side, one of the quickest ways to have an employee feel ignored is to minimize their efforts and take their contribution for granted. 

It's not enough to just praise the end result, like saying, "Good job on X." Vague and superficial praise can feel just as empty as not giving praise at all! Employees want to be appreciated for more than just ticking something off their to-do list. They want to feel special for their unique skills and contributions.

There were a lot of smaller steps and efforts that led up to that final achievement. People want the behind-the-scenes efforts to be appreciated. In short, employee recognition is not just about the end result. Taking the time to offer employees detailed and impactful recognition is the essence of empathetic leadership.

The Dangers of Too Much Empathy

When you think about a toxic work culture, niceness and empathy might not be the first things that come to mind. Typically, you might conjure up an image of nasty coworkers spreading negative gossip and arrogant managers lashing out at employees. 

Yet, the reality is that unhealthy work cultures can manifest in various ways. The stereotypical competition-driven environment is just one example. Cultural problems can often hide behind a cheerful exterior. Where even empathy—when excessive, can prove harmful.

Can empathy go too far?

Renowned leadership expert and best-selling author Kim Scott contends that empathy, if taken to extremes, can become unhelpful.

In her book Radical Candor, she coined the term "Ruinous Empathy" to describe the tendency of bosses to be overly nice but not genuinely kind. This occurs when leaders have a desire to care personally but a low willingness to challenge employees directly.

According to Scott, challenging employees is the key. It can be difficult in the short term and might feel cruel, but it's actually the kindest thing you can do.

Challenging people shows that you care enough to point out when things aren't going well. Most employees are hungry to grow, evolve, and be challenged. So, if you fail to challenge them, you will not only deprive them of the opportunity to grow but potentially create an environment of toxic positivity in your company—this can be just as damaging as an overly cutthroat environment. 

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant discusses a similar view in his model, The 4 Deadly Sins of Work Culture. He calls these types of overly nice work culture "cultures of mediocrity." In these cultures, "people are so worried about getting along that they end up forfeiting good work."

In the end, empathy is critical. It's a great thing for leaders to make sure everyone feels happy and gets along. But in any business, tough feedback or difficult decisions must be made. And if leaders forgo good work out of fear of creating disharmony or conflict, that's when this tendency to be nice is taken too far.

Final Thoughts

Leaders have long struggled with the conflict between empathy and efficiency. But as you can see, either end of the spectrum can lead to problems.

On one hand, being overly concerned with efficiency can lead to a cold, detached climate. Employees may feel like mere production units when their feelings and individual needs are not met with flexibility and understanding. Pursuing results without recognizing the human element can lead to burnout, decreased morale, and turnover. In the long run, this can be detrimental to success.

But the other extreme has problems of its own. For example, a desire to be too considerate prevents leaders from giving constructive criticism and needed challenges. As a result, "Ruinous Empathy" can emerge. Taken to an extreme, the fear of creating conflict can lead to a culture of mediocrity, where people are afraid to voice opinions or push boundaries. This climate can also stifle performance, growth and innovation.

Ultimately, leaders must strive to balance empathy and efficiency. It's not one or the other. When organizations learn to balance these two competing priorities, a thriving and productive organization is most likely to emerge. 

Guest Author