Empathy is at the heart of effective leadership. Many other leadership skills — from effective communication to delegation — flow from empathy. As the world of work continues to transform and employees are working at ever greater distances from each other, people are increasingly realizing the importance of workplace empathy.
Empathy is not an easy skill to master, but with the right guidance, you can work towards becoming a more empathic leader and get all the benefits that come with introducing more empathy at work. Let's walk through some of the signs of empathetic leadership as well as some of the steps you can take to build an empathetic workplace.
What is empathy in the workplace?
There can be confusion around the precise meaning of empathy in the workplace and how it relates to other concepts (like sympathy and emotional intelligence). Empathy refers to the ability of an individual to identify with the thoughts and feelings of another person, which allows that individual to better understand their perspective on a given event or situation. Taking an empathetic approach to others enables leaders to create workplaces that better accommodate the emotional well-being of employees.
Some of the skills and competencies that distinguish the empathic leader are:
- Active listening.
Empathy vs. sympathy vs. emotional intelligence: What are the differences?
Empathy is distinct from sympathy, which is more closely related to pity, or the emotional response one feels toward someone else over a negative event they are experiencing. While the sympathetic individual may feel a personal connection to another person and their feelings, sympathy does not typically involve "standing in the shoes" of that person to identify with exactly how they are feeling and why.
There is less of a clear demarcation line between emotional intelligence and empathy. Technically, empathy is one of the attributes required for emotional intelligence, which is defined by a set of skills. Both emotional intelligence (or E.Q.) and empathy are characterized by the ability to forge personal connections; offer undivided attention to others when they are speaking; and take the perspectives of others in a given situation.
Leaders with high emotional intelligence can be strong in cognitive empathy, which involves being aware of and understanding another person's emotional state, but lack the ability to act on that knowledge. Effective leaders have compassionate empathy, which includes taking action to support others.
The importance of empathy in the workplace
The world of work has been in a state of flux since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As workplaces change and new priorities emerge, employee expectations have undergone a dramatic transformation. This has led to a seachange in the types of skills needed to keep employees happy while at work, with empathy topping the list for many executives.
The changing workplace
The pandemic transformed workplaces and changed the way employees interact with the rest of their organizations. Many employees now spend most (or all) of their time at work by themselves, engaging in far fewer face-to-face interactions with their colleagues. This creates new challenges for leadership teams as more employees report feeling lonely or isolated. One study from Gallup found that almost a quarter of remote employees struggled with loneliness at work, four percentage points higher than the level reported by on-site workers.
Loneliness seems to have a direct effect on employee engagement. Decreased engagement has led to plummeting retention rates, contributing to the Great Resignation and putting more pressure on leadership teams to create workplaces that better accommodate the emotional and psychological needs of workers.
Compounding these challenges, virtual and hybrid work models lead to a greater fusion of employees' personal and professional lives. That means employees are increasingly carving out time slots in their workdays for personal obligations, like caring for sick children, attending doctors' appointments and tending to their pets.
The need for empathy in the workplace
All of these changes have combined to set a new standard for effective leadership. The pandemic radically changed employee expectations and created a demand for skills like empathy that better equip managers to create workplaces that make employees feel valued, respected and psychologically safe.
Psychological safety is a key piece of empathy in the workplace. People want to feel safe when they go to work, knowing they can be themselves and speak their minds without worrying about judgment or retribution. Creating these types of workplaces requires both a leadership team and an organization that is committed to building empathy into the culture.
When your organization displays a high level of empathy, you can expect:
- Stronger communication.
- Better engagement.
- Higher productivity.
- Increased retention.
- More welcoming and inclusive workplaces.
- A shared sense of mission.
Empathy ranks near the top in the skills required to be an effective leader. Unlike many other skills, empathy touches nearly every aspect of your organization, so developing a stronger sense of empathy will likely have positive, far-reaching effects on other areas across your entire business.
Signs that your workplace is lacking in empathy
Despite the growing importance of empathy, most organizations still seem to struggle with it. One survey from Businessolver found that just a quarter of employees felt that empathy in their workplace was sufficient.
Experienced leadership coaches will know almost immediately when an organization has an empathy problem. Here are some of the telltale signs that you lack empathy in the workplace:
- Protective barriers: Employees that don't feel safe or comfortable at work instinctively throw up barriers to protect themselves. They're usually quieter, fearful of saying the wrong thing and will display body language cues that are reserved and defensive.
- Tense meetings: Meetings tend to be rigid and display few signs of genuine conversation. Employees might spend much of their time looking around the room at others, constantly on guard for signs that what they're saying is acceptable.
- Unresolved conflict: Employees that can't speak their minds bottle their emotions up inside, and that means short fuses and often tense exchanges over relatively mundane issues. Constant conflict is also rooted in a lack of trust, which leads individuals to feel that other team members have malicious intent.
- Lack of innovative thinking: Individuals are made to subject their views and perspectives to those of the leadership team, and that leaves almost no room for innovative thinking. Employees tend to display a narrow-minded approach to their work, afraid to depart from established norms.
Building a more empathetic workplace culture
Creating empathy in the workplace requires a high level of focus, determination and commitment, but it doesn't have to be an overwhelming undertaking. Here are some of the simple methods you can employ to build a more empathetic workplace:
- Hold regular meetings: Holding routine one-to-one meetings with each of your direct reports helps create space for them to speak openly. You should also use these sessions to better understand your employees' on a personal level so you can learn what bothers them, what motivates them and what their goals are.
- Express praise and gratitude: Employees want to know that their hard work is noticed and appreciated. Make time to recognize individual contributions and achievements — both directly to the individual themselves and in company-wide communications — to make them feel valued and to inspire more good work.
- Offer flexible schedules where possible: People's personal lives are increasingly intertwined with their professional ones, and they expect their employers to make accommodations to respect that. It's important you prioritize healthy work-life balances. This means allowing people the flexibility to handle childcare, pet care, and other personal issues while on the clock, knowing that employees are likely to extend their work day beyond the normal hours in exchange.
- Create healthy cultural norms: Employees never want to feel like they're walking on eggshells while at work. You need to create a workplace that doesn't pressure employees to measure their words for fear of being criticized. Employees shouldn't feel reluctant to suggest ideas that are "outside of the box." They need to feel safe to speak up as long as they show appropriate respect for colleagues.
- Showcase good work (and behavior): A system of rewards and recognition can go a long way. Highlight examples of employees demonstrating empathy toward others, and encourage other team members to do the same. The more encouragement people receive, the more you're able to reinforce good behavior, helping to underpin a culture of empathy.
How to develop empathetic leadership skills
Ultimately, the most effective way to develop your sense of empathy and build a more empathetic workplace is to work with a leadership coach. At The Bailey Group, empathy isn't just a buzzword — it's central to our culture. Our team of leadership coaches considers empathy so critical to successful leadership that we weave it into every aspect of our own leadership development, both at the team and individual level.
When working with clients to build empathy, we start by helping them develop a better sense of self-awareness. That means learning to understand on a deeper level why they feel and behave the way they do, so they can better accept themselves as human beings who are prone to making mistakes — just like everyone else. We start with self-awareness because it allows clients to develop a sense of empathy toward themselves, which is the critical first step toward showing empathy to others.
From there, we work with clients to turn their attention outward so they can start building a commitment to empathy in their workplaces. Our strategies include helping leaders:
- Put themselves in the shoes of others to understand what makes them behave the way they do and adjust their approach to match that.
- Listen to feedback from others to learn how their behavior is being received, and apply those lessons in an effective, constructive way.
- Learn their impact on others and ask themselves honestly if that's the impact they intended so they can take steps to better adjust their behavior.
At The Bailey Group, we take a holistic approach to leadership development that combines our collective expertise in psychology, behavioral science, and business operations. Many of our coaches have sat in senior leadership seats themselves and understand the unique and complex issues today's leaders face.