How To Build Empathy In The Workplace

How to build empathy in the workplace

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and feel the thoughts, emotions and perspectives of others.

Empathy is more than sympathy – with which it’s often confused, sympathy being a feeling of concern for someone but doesn’t involve having a shared perspective or emotion with them.

Put very basically, empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes – to feel and think as they do.

Empathy is at the core of any relationship – whether that be a personal or professional one.

It’s a key component of emotional intelligence (EQ) and is a vital leadership skill.

There are three types of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassionate empathy.

Cognitive empathy is a rational and intellectual ability to understand what someone might be thinking or feeling. It doesn’t involve any emotional engagement with the other person or group of people and is great for gauging what’s needed at the moment to get the best out of someone or people. (which means it can also, unfortunately, be used unscrupulously.

Emotional empathy is empathy at a much deeper level – it involves you being able to share someone’s feelings and therefore create a deeper connection and genuine rapport with someone. Some people who are naturally more empathic can find this kind of empathy overwhelming because they haven’t yet learnt or created healthy boundaries around how much of other people’s emotions they take on and absorb.

Compassionate empathy is the ability to then take action and help someone (or a group of people) resolve any problems or emotional pain. Having acknowledged people’s feelings and perspectives, you are then able to spend time supporting and helping them resolve the issue.

Why Is Empathy At Work So Important?

As human beings, we all intrinsically need to feel we belong and are cared for.

The workplace is no different from any other setting, or ‘system’ of people in this way (although many don’t, unfortunately, see it this way).

I spoke to several leaders and HR professionals about its role within organisational life.

Every single one of them named empathy as being the most important, foundational human and EQ skill there is.

I spoke to Owen Jarman, Commercial Director at Costain Group PLC – the British engineering company responsible for building the Channel Tunnel and latterly HS2.  He heads up the Tideway East project, leading a team of 50 :

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a caveman or someone going through the pandemic in 2021, empathy is equally important whatever the time and place – I couldn’t imagine being OK and working for someone who didn’t care about me.  This is not just a pandemic or hybrid working issue, this absolutely has to be an innate human response.”

Additionally, empathy can be especially important through times of change and disruption. Sumitra Gidwani is the L&D Manager for the Curtis Brown Group:

“Empathy is the foundation of organisational life, the basis for growth, change, and creativity. Empathy helps build and navigate relationships and community. It is based on a genuine curiosity and understanding of others and is crucial in helping us adapt to change. It helps us understand what’s going on for ourselves and others during times of change, and so helps us to adapt and move forward through it, together. If we don’t understand, what’s going on for ourselves and for others, how can we really move forward, grow and adapt?”

Motivation, productivity and lower turnover rates are all other recognised business benefits of an empathetic workplace, and according to a 2021 Workplace Empathy Study by Businessolver, a benefits technology company, the benefits of empathy (contrary to popular belief), can be measured.

The Report Found:
  • 1 in 3 said they would switch companies for increased empathy
  • 40% would work longer hours
  • 56% would stay if they felt valued

“ Empathy is vital for business – Think of all the businesses and leaders you have worked well for and enjoyed your time with – it is most probably because you feel like they care about you. Emotional intelligence in leadership is not just the icing on the cake, it is the very foundation of good leadership.”

Owen Jarman

The Empathy Gap

However, the workplace empathy study also identified:

  • 76% of CEO’s think empathy is important
  • 60% of CEO’s believe their organisations are empathetic
  • …but only 24% of employees agree.

Sumitra Gidwani says it’s important that senior management takes empathy, and any lack thereof, seriously:

“ A lack of empathy causes complete relationship and communication breakdowns, a lot of defensiveness and stone-walling. The backlash and recovery from it can be so painful and take so long, and the scares are often never healed. It is definitely ‘easier’ in the short term to be more dictatorial, tell people what to do, and just get things done, but in the long term it causes such a lot of pain and creates a real, lasting lack of trust.”

If Empathy Is So Important, And The Costs Are So High, Why Can Levels Be So Low?

The effects of a lack of empathy are commonly difficult to measure and attribute in the workplace.

Plus, learning and practising empathy is rarely easy for most – it’s not taught in schools, and doesn’t come naturally for many of us.

It also requires time and space, effort, self-awareness, and conscious self-management.

Neuroscience also shows that when we are stressed, the part of our brains responsible for empathy (the pre-frontal cortex), gets flooded with stress hormone norepinephrine – and this stops us actually being able to access it.

So, during the times it’s most needed, we are often the least able to give and show it.

Importantly, in terms of improving and building empathy, it also requires openness to feedback, and a willingness to change.

Ina Hristova, HR Director, Zuhlke:

“Empathy is vital for leaders in the day to day, and when it doesn’t come naturally, working relationships become much more transactional. When this happens people become demotivated, get upset more, there will be more escalations, and more time will be needed for resolving the issues caused. To be more empathetic, leaders need to listen to their people, and they need to pro-actively seek, and be able to receive feedback – so they can improve.”

 Owen Jarman says, as a leader, it’s vital you make the effort:

“ You are at a huge disadvantage if you are not empathetic as a leader.  You cannot get the same level of buy-in from team members if you don’t care about them and show empathy.  It’s a two-way street – If you don’t care about me, I am less likely to care about you – and what you want.”

The good news is, empathy is not a fixed trait, and it CAN be learnt.

How To Build Empathy In The Workplace

Empathy needs to be an organisation-wide priority. The most empathetic organisations I’ve worked with have even had it as one of their values.

In any organisational hierarchy, it has to be practised, and modelled, top-down.

Any non-empathetic behaviours need to be openly challenged and supported by policy.

Leaders need to be given enough time and support to develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training, or developmental opportunities and initiatives.

How To Improve Your Own Levels Of Empathy

Whatever the levels within your workplace, and whatever your current levels of empathy (however low), it is something you can learn to do.

Neuroscience shows – the more you practice something, the easier it will become.

Here’s my and my business partner, Anne Taylor’s, model for both learning and practising empathy in the workplace:

You can download this as pdf here

For example, if you notice someone unusually not hitting their deadlines and appearing distracted in meetings:

Care and concern – rather than focus on the missed deadlines or their ‘negative’ behaviour, ask them how they’re doing generally, how they’re feeling, what’s going on for them that might be behind it.

Attentive – create the time and space to have the conversation privately, be fully present with them.

Reframe – suspend any judgements such as “they’ve got lazy”, assume that they want to be doing a good job but something may just be getting in the way of achieving their deadlines or behaving well in meetings.

Engage – really listen to them. Ask open, clarifying questions to get a full picture of what’s happening behind the scenes eg: “what happened that stopped you meeting the deadline / what information do you need?”

Start where they are – resist the urge to rush ahead to tell them what they need to do to start hitting those deadliens again or behaving as required in meetings. Notice how they respond to you, how they talk, and if they’re lower in energy than you or quieter, take your energy down a notch, lower your voice.

Show emotional support – as well asking what they need, ask what they need from you to help them start achieving their targets again or contributing fully in meetings. Tell them how you can help (if relevant), and acknowledge the skills qualities and attributes they already have that can help them resolve the issue too.

If this all feels like a lot of work, it is.  But as Owen Jarman says, it’s worth it:

“If you are naturally more transactional and results driven as a leader, know that there is a better way to get results!….

When you are empathetic, you have greater buy-in, everyone’s happier, you’re happier, and you feel more satisfied that you’ve not only got the results but also made a real difference.

When you leave this world wouldn’t it be nice to be remembered as a person who got results and was good to people and who cared – rather than someone who achieved success, at all costs, but didn’t care about those they lead”

You might also like: The Essential EQ Leadership Skills Needed For Returning To Work 

[If you want to develop your own empathy skills or help your people develop theirs, get in touch to arrange a call: – 07931 996854Anne Taylor and I offer empathy lunch & learn, masterclasses, programmes and 1-1 EQ leadership coaching.]

1.  Businessolver 2021State of Workplace Empathy Study