Cultivating Empathy in the Workplace—Today’s #1 Skill
Are you prioritizing empathy in the workplace? As a business owner or manager, do you intentionally empathize with those you work with? As an individual, do you strive to empathize with others and build your empathy skills?
Empathy has always been a valued skill in the workplace, but today, it is more important than ever before. In this post, we’ll discuss why empathy is so important, share examples of empathy in the workplace, and provide strategies for how to cultivate empathy at work.
The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace
The climate crisis is showing no sign of abating. There’s a brutal war of attrition being fought in Europe that has everyone wondering if the delicate global balance is about to shatter. And not only that, the world is years into a pandemic that has claimed millions of lives, irrevocably changed millions more, and radically altered our idea of what a workplace looks like and what it means to ‘go to work.’
The pervasive dread and reactionary politics of our time are wearing everyone down. As Overlap CEO Brock Hart puts it, “People are just so burned out right now.”
Everyone is struggling, which is precisely why empathy in the workplace is more important than ever. Brock says, “Empathy is one of the most important leadership traits around right now. Really understanding how to put that to work is going to be critical moving forward.”
Your employees aren’t lazy, your boss isn’t an ogre, and your clients aren’t needy—we’re all just people with similar hopes and dreams. A little kindness and understanding go a long way. Making an effort to understand someone’s personal experience and where they’re coming from is vital to eliminating bias and building trusting relationships with your team, your clients, and your community at large.
Benefits of Empathy in the Workplace:
- Empathy helps you understand your customers on a deeper level.
- Empathy helps you build better products and services.
- Empathy builds trust across a team.
- Empathy humanizes your brand.
- Empathy helps you engage with your community.
- Empathy boosts innovation.
- Empathy prevents burnout and reduces employee turnover.
- Empathy promotes an inclusive and welcoming environment.
Empathy in the Workplace Examples
Empathy is vital to any team. By empathizing with someone, you can begin to build trust, which is the most fundamental requirement of any healthy relationship. And since a team without trust is no team at all, empathy between team members is vitally important to establish, build, and maintain.
Simple forms of empathy involve remembering the correct pronunciation of people’s names, being present and making eye contact, offering constructive feedback, and expressing curiosity about a teammate’s interests outside of work. It also means being understanding when someone arrives late or makes a mistake and lending your ear to a team member who feels at their wit’s end with the pressures of work, home, or the world.
Brock Hart points out that “Working from home can lead to a culture of overtime, people have lost their jobs, they’re dealing with childcare—it’s a stressful time. Empathy can really help here too. Having compassion at work helps in these moments of crisis; we’re able to demonstrate that we recognize and acknowledge and care about people's life circumstances and situations.”
Empathizing with your teammates and direct reports enables a more welcoming and inclusive environment. Employees need to know that the company they work for and the manager they work under cares about their needs, values the contributions they make, and is invested in helping them reach their personal and professional goals.
Understanding your customers better is a win-win for everyone involved. By gaining a deep understanding of their needs, you can produce products and services that people actually need and want.
What are your customers' needs? What are your customers' pain points? What keeps them up at night? What is your product or service not currently offering them? What can you do to delight your customers?
Go beyond simple customer service surveys to empathize with their deeper needs, thoughts, and life circumstances.
Empathy plays a huge role in providing your customers with what they need when they need it—or even better—before they even know they need it. Plus, demonstrating empathy throughout your interactions with customers, clients, and stakeholders goes a long way in building trust and comfort with your brand.
💡 Learn how to make better decisions for your customers: 7 Decision Making Tools for Reaching Group Consensus.
It’s also important to show empathy for your community and the communities your business touches. Before choosing the cheapest possible product or service or looking for the lowest offer on a supplier, consider the small businesses within your own community.
For example, choosing a cheaply made product undermines the businesses you share a community with. Your company’s bottom line is one of the most important considerations for any business, but it’s also important to consider how the businesses within your own community are weathering today’s difficult circumstances. By investing in your own community, you’re demonstrating that you understand their struggles and want to help be part of the solution.
Additionally, buying cheaply made products may be further polluting the planet. To offer a product cheaply, suppliers often cut corners and may be using harsh chemicals because it’s easier and saves money. And by shipping that cheaper product in from another city or country, you're adding to emissions and furthering your negative footprint on the environment.
💡 When there isn’t a straightforward answer, it’s time for another approach: Creative Problem Solving Examples That Solved Real World Problems.
How to Improve Empathy at Work
Empathy doesn’t just happen; it needs to be cultivated intentionally.
You can’t understand people if you’re not listening. This doesn’t mean smiling and nodding while you’re waiting for your chance to speak or glancing at the clock. Listening to someone is an active experience that requires energy and investment. This means listening to the words someone uses as well as paying attention to their body language.
There’s active listening and passive listening, and the difference is right there in the name. Passive listening is listening without internalizing and processing the information that someone is trying to communicate to you. You hear them, but you’re more focused on what you’re going to make for dinner or the task you have to get to after the conversation. Passive listening doesn’t require any effort or energy; essentially, you’re letting someone talk in your general direction.
Active listening requires effort and empathy. To be an active listener, practice maintaining eye contact with the person speaking with you. Do what you can to mirror their body language to put them at ease, as people feel more comfortable speaking with someone they feel they have something in common with. Show you understand what they’re saying by nodding or repeating their point in your own words.
Imagine meeting your in-laws for the first time. How would you demonstrate you’re giving them your full and undivided attention? Practice giving this same attention to your coworkers and clients through active listening.
Utilize Empathy Maps
Empathy maps are a simple yet powerful design tool that can help you better understand your customers, clients, and users. They establish a visual representation of a person’s needs to help you make decisions that will provide the most value to them as individuals.
The process involves digging into someone’s personal experiences, including their inner feelings and environment. What are they thinking? What do they see? What do they hear? What do they feel?
The structure of the empathy map will help you empathize with a user’s experience when using your product or service. You can examine a real individual's experiences or create a persona that represents your customers. Personas are usually best since they encapsulate a specific grouping of your customer base.
Ask More Questions
If there’s one thing everyone enjoys (even if they pretend they don’t), it’s giving their opinion. So, why not ask people more questions? Asking questions will help you better understand other people’s perspectives, views, ideas, thoughts, preferences, and needs.
If you’ve ever spent time with a toddler, you know their propensity for asking the question, “Why?” A question that’s invariably followed by, “But WHY?” And so on and so forth in perpetuity. While this parade of whys can be both cute and frustrating, the toddler simply wants to get to the bottom of the situation in order to figure out how things work. Shouldn’t that be common practice for all of us, especially as adults?
Be like the toddlers out there and dig deeper. Don’t settle for just one explanation, and never rely on your assumptions. Asking questions shows you really want to know what the other person has to say, and you’re willing to invest your own time into learning what makes them tick. You’re not just asking perfunctory questions to be polite—you’re demonstrating that you want to get to know them.
People enjoy speaking about themselves. Just ensure the questions you ask contribute to an inclusive and welcoming environment.
Toss Away Assumptions
All of us make assumptions every day—it’s human nature. But just because it comes naturally doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Assumptions are the enemy of context; they hinder our understanding of each other and are a huge contributor to bad decision making.
Don’t assume; ask. But before you ask, ensure you’re ready to listen to what the other person has to say. How often have you asked a question even though you’re pretty sure you know the answer? However, what you think you know might be very far from the truth. You have no way of truly knowing what a person is thinking or feeling until you dig deeper, so stop going into situations with preconceived notions. Instead, be prepared to ask questions and actively listen to what the other person has to say.
From the assumptions you hold about your teammates to the assumptions you have about clients to the assumptions you make about the users of your products, assumptions are everywhere. Challenge each assumption you currently hold. Enter each new engagement with a fresh and open mind. Let people show you who they are beyond first impressions. Allow your views of people to evolve; otherwise, no one will ever be able to grow or change because one first impression is all you give them.
Build Cross Company Buy-In
In order to improve empathy at work, you need involvement and buy-in from all directions. It can’t only be something the CEO tells managers they want to see more of. An email demanding that empathy be prioritized as a managerial style is not enough—and a single training session won’t do the trick either.
Managers and team leaders need guidance, support, and resources surrounding how to cultivate empathy in the workplace. At the same time, this focus on empathy needs to come from the bottom too. All employees must understand the importance and value of empathy in the workplace and seek to improve their own empathy skills.
This won’t happen overnight. It takes time to adopt new ways of working, new ways of listening, and new ways of thinking about the people you work with.
Empathy Training in the Workplace
Training is the bigger picture. It’s an investment. If you want to improve empathy in the workplace, you need to put the time in. Show your team that empathy is a top priority by providing the necessary tools, resources, and training.
Overlap’s Creative Problem Solving School was crafted to bring empathy-driven training to individuals, teams, and organizations. Our courses are designed to build skills around empathy, helping leaders and team members to become authentically compassionate by demonstrating care, concern, and understanding inside and outside of the workplace.
Get the skills, tools, and approaches to unlock innovation, cultivate empathy, and navigate uncertainty in the face of a changing world. Our courses are transformational, fun, and very practical, and we pride ourselves on our experiential education that supports hands-on learning.
Learn how to work better together, understand your customers, and solve complex challenges with our wide range of courses. Each course includes practical and engaging materials that will leave you inspired and well-equipped to solve whatever complex problems come your way.
If you’re new to design thinking, we recommend starting with our Intro to Human-Centred Design (101) course. Further your education and continue building your empathy skills with our Exploring Complex Problems (201) and Making Better Decisions (203) courses.