Why Is Empathy Important in the Workplace? (And Steps To Improve Yours)

Empathy in the context of the workplace simply means that your people are able to establish true, empathetic connections with one another that enhance relationships and performance. It’s important to remember the difference between sympathy and empathy, as the 2 are often confused.

“One of the principles we’ve upheld since our founding is empathy. When we first spoke on the phone for this article in June, Chelsea MacDonald, SVP of people and operations at Ada, a tech startup that creates customer-service platforms, told me that. Empathy was “a bit more ad hoc” in the company’s early years when there were only about 50 employees because you could run into coworkers at lunch. But that was pre-pandemic, and before a hiring surge.

Currently, according to MacDonald, empathy is based on communication (she speaks to the entire company about empathy up to five times per week), tools (specifically, one that tracks who people communicate with the most and who is left out), intimacy (cultivated through special interest groups), and transparency (senior leaders share notes after every meeting). Throughout our conversation, MacDonald has said that empathy is “more than just saying, ‘Hey, care about other people,'” and that it “makes space for other people to make mistakes.” ”.

When I tweeted about the workplace craze of “empathy,” a dozen executives’ communications directors contacted me. She was one of them. The chief people officer at the software company Pegasystems, Adriana Bokel Herde, told me about the three-hour virtual empathy-training session the business had created for managers, noting that nearly 90% of participants had signed up voluntarily. The CEO of predictive writing company Textio, Kieran Snyder, claimed that the biggest surprise about empathy in the workplace is that it and accountability are “flip sides of the same coin.” “We received some feedback from an engineer that was really striking,” she remarked to me. She claimed that setting clear expectations for her would be the most considerate thing her manager could do for her. Let me handle my deliverables like an adult so that I will know what to do. ”.

After 17 months of societal and professional upheaval, all of these leaders see empathy as a way forward. Employees do feel that empathy is lacking in the workplace, as only 1 in 4 of them thought their organizations’ empathy levels were “sufficient,” according to the Businessolver 2021 State of Workplace Empathy Study. Companies are aware that they must begin to address their lack of empathy or risk losing employees to businesses that are However, I’ve also heard from employees who believe it’s all nonsense: the most recent in a long line of corporate attempts to divert attention from a toxic or exploitative corporate culture, yet another instance in which employers beg employees to be open and vulnerable about their needs and then implicitly or explicitly punish them for it.

Even after reading this, it’s understandable if you still don’t understand what workplace empathy is. Outside of the workplace, practicing empathy entails attempting to comprehend and share the thoughts and feelings of others. Having empathy is different from having sympathy, which tends to be more one-sided: you feel sorry for what someone else is going through, but you don’t really know what it’s like. Empathy is difficult, if not impossible, to develop because it is based on experience. At best, it broadens sympathy; at worst, it attempts to connect wildly dissimilar lived experiences (notably, white people trying to understand the experience of systemic racism).

When used in a professional setting, the concept of empathy starts to crumble. I spoke with more than a dozen people from the C-suites of midsize and large companies that had chosen to make empathy central to their corporate messaging or strategy while researching this story. Is it cultivating niceness, is it making space for sympathy and allowing people to air grievances, or is it leadership modeling vulnerability? Some plans were more fleshed out and self-interrogating. Some people believed that three time zones’ worth of empathy training was sufficient. Others defined empathy as small acts, such as giving a coworker a 10-minute break to get water before you meet with them after seeing that they’ve been in meetings all day on their calendar.

But where did the current push for empathy in the workplace start? Taylor Jr. It sort of started with, well, him, according to, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and author of the upcoming book Reset: A Leader’s Guide to Work in an Age of Upheaval. Businesses had been using a similar refrain in the fall of 2020: everyone was exhausted. Tired of the pandemic, stagnant diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives, and their superiors and subordinates The causes of that exhaustion became apparent when he examined the 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study, which was then in its fourth year. People were exhausted from their constant work schedules, juggling caregiving duties, and adjusting to COVID-19’s fluctuating threat levels. But he also thought that they were tired because of a generalized empathy deficit.

The centerpiece of Taylor’s State of Society speech in November 2020 was that “empathy deficit.” In response to the murder of George Floyd, he said, “Much of the resurgence of DE&I programming was supposed to encourage open dialogue and mutual understanding.” “But it often bypassed empathy. Instead of listening and making an effort to relate, well-intentioned programs end up turning into grievance sessions. ”.

With more than 300,000 members across 165 countries, SHRM is a hugely influential organization. Although there were already some attempts at empathy, Taylor’s speech encouraged them. Even if members weren’t present to hear what he had to say, the information from the study and his message started to make their way into HR departments, spawning Zoom trainings and optional learning modules in their wake.

The backlash started shortly thereafter. Taylor acknowledges as much. “I see these companies jumping on it,” he told me. “But it’s not an initiative. It’s not a buzzword. It’s a cultural principle. Your employees will hold you accountable if you make this commitment as a business and if you make it public. He continues, “Empathy should be reciprocal; employers should also be able to make mistakes. There is an expectation that employees can make mistakes. ”.

Many workers are irritated by what they perceive to be hypocrisy. (Out of concern for their jobs, all employees who provided negative feedback about their employers for this article requested anonymity. ) One woman revealed to me that her company, Viacom, has been actively promoting empathy, especially with regard to mental health. In addition, it has changed to a health plan with more limitations on who can access mental health professionals and care. (Viacom claims it has taken steps to address the change and blames it on a change in policy by their insurance provider. Other staff members claim that upper management frequently invokes empathy in staff meetings, but that they receive little instruction on how to use it with those they are in charge of. One woman who works for a performing arts charity told me, “In a one-on-one meeting with my boss where I was openly struggling and tried to discuss it, I was told that mental health is important, but improving my job performance was more important.” ”.

A customer-service agent for a fintech company claimed that empathy had been prioritized as a “core value” of the business, something that employees were expected to put into practice both with one another and with clients. The business sends out customer satisfaction surveys (CSATs) following each interaction to measure employee empathy. It was discovered that drops in CSAT scores, which were determined by an automated system, consistently occurred when a customer was placed on hold for an extended period of time and had little to do with how empathetic the representative was. Yet employees were still promoted based on these scores.

The fundamental conflict keeps coming up: “There’s an irony because there is the equity that you want to present to employees—while also giving special consideration and solutions for specific situations,” Joyce Kim, chief marketing officer of Genesys, which offers call-center and customer service technology to businesses, told me. “Those two are often incongruent. To put it another way, it’s challenging, at least from a leadership perspective, to foster fairness for all while also allowing for exceptions for all. How, in other words, do you accommodate difference while still maximizing profits if you permit an employee to work different hours, have different expectations of accessibility, or have more leeway because of an illness?

In essence, employers want to teach staff to treat one another like people rather than productivity robots—people with children, people with responsibilities, and people who must deal with systemic discrimination. However, that goes against the primary objective of most businesses, which is to produce and distribute a product as effectively as possible, whether it be a service, an item, or a design. Although they may couch that objective in less capitalist language, the end result is still profits—the more the better, with the least amount of friction.

Within this framework, the frictionless employee is the ideal employee. But a lack of friction is a privilege. It entails dressing, acting, and behaving like people in authority, which, at least in American culture, entails being white, male, and cisgender; having few or no caregiving responsibilities; not having any physical or mental disabilities; not having a strong accent or awkward social quirks; not having any physical reminders of having grown up in poverty, such as “bad teeth”; and not requiring any accommodations, whether they be dietary, religious, or otherwise. People who fit this description or who could conceal or groom away the aspects of themselves that did not worked in offices for decades.

The admission of women and people of color into these spaces came with the tacit understanding that they would submit to the status quo. They didn’t bring their “whole selves” to work. Not even close. Only components that would blend in with the rest of the workforce were brought. You didn’t raise a fuss if you were sexually harassed. If someone used a racial slur, same deal. The one Jewish employee was expected not to cause a stir if the Christmas festivities made them feel strange. Bad behavior wasn’t friction, per se. But it sure was strange to hear a worker, whose identity had already caused some friction, complain about it.

Labor historians have noted that this attitude was particularly pervasive in office settings, where salaried employees were frequently overexposed to stories of a grand, unifying purpose. Employees would be taken care of by the company in the form of compensation and a future pension if they took care of the business and shaped themselves as closely as possible to the ideal worker. One of the many reasons why white collar office workers have resisted unionization efforts was that they felt, according to sociologist C Wright Mills has observed an obnoxious, bordering on hysterical form of office conflict. Longshoremen and machinists were workers and could only stand up for themselves using the union’s big stick. Office workers were able to resolve disputes amicably, boss to employee, much like the white gentlemen they purported to be.

Over the course of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, this mindset started to deteriorate. First, when massive waves of layoffs and benefit reductions undermined the myth of the forgiving parent company. But in the wake of legal protections against discrimination based on gender, age, disability, and, more recently, sexual orientation, the culture’s emphasis on being white and male also started to (very gradually) change. Most industries continued to be dominated by white male workers, especially in leadership positions. But they started to lose their uncontested monopoly on the workplace norms. Some changes were accepted, while others—particularly those involving sexual harassment and racial discrimination—were forced through the legal system.

Keeping employees healthy enough to perform their jobs effectively was the main objective of HR departments in the past, dating back to the field’s beginnings in “scientific management” of factory assembly lines. After 1964, their mission widened to include upholding legal protections in addition to keeping staff members healthy and “happy” enough to perform their jobs well. After all, “unhappiness” is costly; a 2013 Gallup estimate indicates that unhappiness costs U S. Companies lose $450 million to $550 million in productivity annually. Unhappiness, in other words, is friction.

There are some obvious fixes: continuing to undermine the power of monoculture (in which one, limited way of being/working becomes the way in which all other employees must aspire); recruiting and retaining managers who actually know how to manage; creating a culture that fosters the “happiness” of a bunch of different types of people, from different backgrounds, with different cultural contexts. However, the suggested remedy typically takes the form of an HR initiative.

Consider the “wellness” movement of the 2010s, which included free Fitbits, gym memberships, and mental health seminars. These initiatives can be seen as a part of the effort to lower health insurance premiums. However, you can also see them as a way of dealing with the reality of a workforce that was concerned about their careers and finances in the wake of the Great Recession, especially as more and more workers were being replaced by subcontractors who had even fewer rights and benefits. Or take into account the push for DE&I programs after the 2015 Black Lives Matter demonstrations. These initiatives seek to acknowledge a perceived source of friction—the company’s high whiteness, its leadership’s continued “snowcapping,” or the workplace’s subdued or overt hostility toward Black and brown employees—while also outlining a suggested remedy. The corporate DE&I initiative lets people know that we are aware of the issue and are working to find a solution so that you can stop talking about it.

Initiatives like DE&I and wellness are frequently unfulfilling and demoralizing, especially for the employees they are ostensibly intended to help. They frequently rely disproportionately on the work of those with the least authority within an organization. And they approach systemic issues with remedies intended to cause the least amount of disruption to people’s lives as possible. (A three-hour webinar will not create a culture of inclusion. ) But the superficiality is part of the point. Contain the turbulence, but do so by causing as little additional turbulence as you can, because a series of eruptions is easier to control than a truly paradigm-shifting one that imperils the status quo and, consequently, the company’s public image and profitability. According to a 2021 SHRM report, 42% of Black employees, 26% of Asian employees, and 21% of Hispanic employees reported unfair treatment based on their race or ethnicity in the five years since DE&I initiatives swept the corporate world.

Over the previous five years, the effects of racial inequity (lost productivity, turnover, and absenteeism) may have cost the U S. up to $172 billion. However, instead of identifying the aspects of the company culture that make it challenging to keep diverse hires on board or what might need to change to make up for those losses, businesses blame specific employees who were a “bad fit.” DE&I efforts don’t fall short due to a “diversity pipeline problem,” It’s because the people in charge don’t want to give up any of it.

A similar contradiction applies to the rise of “corporate empathy. At its core, it’s a set of policies, initiatives, and messaging created to address the “friction” of a workforce shaken by the pandemic, ongoing racial reckoning, and sustained political anxiety, which was culminated by an uprising on a workday, days after the majority of the workforce had returned from winter breaks. Many empathy initiatives are well-intentioned. But ultimately, coming from an employer, they still ask: How can we collectively continue to function as if we aren’t splitting in two when we see that you are, and that we are, too?

Therein lies the empathy trap. Organizations will continue to promote and retain workers who can make their personalities, needs, and identities as friction-free as possible, as long as they perceive employees with diverse needs as sources of friction and approaches to addressing those needs as examples of unfairness. On a good day, they will promote “bringing the whole self to work.” They will fetishize “sharing personal stories,” but only if the implications don’t affect the outcome or lead to animosity between people. When empathy is thought of as an allowance, the people who would benefit from it lose favor as potential employers. Their friction is centered, and their value decreases.

Our society is based on the principles of capitalism, and empathy is fundamentally at odds with both capitalism and the individualism that underpins it. It is HR’s main responsibility to further develop the qualities that make our bodies, selves, and minds most conducive to those goals, whether through “enrichment” or “wellness,” even though the workplace itself poses the greatest barrier to either.

Because growth and profit do not recognize it, declarations of empathy feel hollow. Companies, HR experts, and managers can only do so much, even with the best training. Employee dissatisfaction is largely caused by actively toxic company policies, careless management, and executives who insist on maintaining the status quo. But a significant portion of it is also fueled by resentment toward structures that go beyond the workplace, such as the eroding social safety nets, the fraying social ties, the structures put in place to devalue women’s work, the persistence of racism, and the lack of protections or fair compensation for the workers whose labor we purport to value the most. How can we get people to care about other people? No wonder workplace initiatives can feel so laughably incomplete. It’s not just a workplace empathy deficit, Taylor told me, “how do you grow a healthy workplace culture when it’s rooted in poisoned soil?” “It’s an American cultural deficit. ”.

Why we need more empathy in the workplace | Shola Kaye | TEDxPeckham

Why is empathy important in the workplace?

Each person is unique because of their own values, cultural understandings, backgrounds, and perspectives. When working on these kinds of teams, you can use your capacity for understanding and empathy with others. Here are other benefits to being empathetic at work:

1. Improves communication

By cultivating empathy, you become more adept at tailoring your communication approach to the individual or group with which you are interacting. When giving a presentation or conversing with a boss, for example, you can modify your voice tone or body language to suit the situation.

2. Strengthens working relationships

3. Boosts creative thinking

Empathy in the workplace can help you come up with more original solutions Your business might ask you to take into account the viewpoint of your audience or the top needs of your target market as a team. You and your team members can think of strategies that would be most appealing to you if you were the customer by using empathy.

Understanding a product or service from the perspective of the user can help you spot opportunities or problems you hadn’t considered before and make you more willing to try out novel solutions.

4. Increases sales and investment opportunities

In the workplace, empathy can help you better comprehend the driving forces behind your current and potential stakeholders, including clients, customers, and investors.

Because different investors may have different reasons for choosing a company, you can develop empathy by learning more about the investors you might work with. Find out about their background in work to see if there are any similarities to you. Invoke their knowledge and experience that probably affects their decisions during your conversation.

When securing contracts with new clients or updating existing contracts with current clients, you can use the same research strategies and discussion techniques. Do some research to learn what matters to them so you can tailor your pitch to suit their needs. Identify any potential issues that might arise for their business and for which your company might have solutions.

5. Enhances customer service

You can provide better customer service by being empathetic because you can predict their needs and wants. When a client calls with a problem, they might be angry and want you to listen to them. Allowing them to finish before responding will demonstrate to them that you value what they have to say. When your clients and coworkers feel valued, they’ll be more receptive to your suggestions.

6. Impacts job interviews

For instance, they might mention how challenging it has been for the past few months without a receptionist. You could begin by stating that you are aware of the need for someone to answer calls and welcome guests, and then go on to discuss your experience with doing so and how well you did it.

This tactic can improve your chances of getting the job by demonstrating that you understand the importance of the position, especially to this employer.

What is empathy?

Understanding another person’s thoughts and feelings is a quality known as empathy. Empathy can help you see things from another person’s point of view, improve your interpersonal relationships, and gain a wider perspective on the world.

Additionally, it helps you understand how your actions affect other people, which can result in more fruitful conversations, particularly when you’re speaking with people from different backgrounds and viewpoints.

How to be more empathetic

There are numerous ways to develop your empathy in the workplace. Use these steps to develop your empathy at work:

1. Actively listen

By actively listening to a speaker to comprehend their request or question before formulating a response, you can develop empathy. By using this technique, you can narrow your attention to the speaker’s needs in order to fully comprehend their thoughts and viewpoint.

2. Personalize your communication

Knowing your target audience will help you think about the most effective way to reach them. Depending on your client’s or colleague’s level of expertise, you might, for instance, alter your vocabulary and word choice. For instance, when speaking with a colleague, you might use more industry-specific terminology, but when presenting to a client, you might use simpler, more general terms. When conversing with coworkers or clients whose native tongues are different from yours, you might even speak another language if you can.

3. Offer to help

The difficulties that your coworkers are facing, such as an increased workload or a personal matter, can also be understood and addressed with empathy. Offering to assist in any way you can will help you practice empathy. This action can demonstrate to your team members your commitment to their success and help them achieve their team goals.

4. Consider a different perspective

If there is interpersonal conflict on your team, make productive use of the discussions and endeavor to see things from different perspectives. Understanding their emotions may help you respond to them more effectively. You can ask clarifying questions if you’re uncertain about their positions on a particular subject. Clarifying your perspective can help them better relate to you.

5. Ask questions

The goal of empathy is to try to understand someone else’s point of view, which is frequently more difficult than it might seem. You can better understand how to assist a client or coworker by asking them various questions about their needs, feelings, and perspectives.

For instance, if a client requests that you locate a specific item that your business no longer sells, you might respond by asking what use they have in mind for it. You can use this knowledge to comprehend their viewpoint and come up with alternative products that can satisfy their particular requirements.

6. Validate their feelings

Even if you do not entirely comprehend and concur with another person’s viewpoint, you can practice empathy by letting them know that you value their feelings. After paying close attention to your client or coworker, express your understanding of the situation and your willingness to help. By acknowledging what they are going through, you demonstrate empathy, which can improve the conversation.


How do you demonstrate empathy at work?

Establishing rapport with colleagues. demonstrating appropriate concern and assistance for coworkers in order to enhance their performance and development Practicing active listening without interrupting and reflective listening by paraphrasing. Avoiding quick judgment.

What is a good example of empathy?

Empathy is demonstrated, for instance, when you smile and try to remember people’s names. Giving people your full attention in meetings, showing interest in their lives and hobbies, and providing helpful criticism are all examples of empathic behaviors. Practice these skills often.

What are 5 examples of empathy?

It’s empathy.
  • You’re making total sense.
  • I understand how you feel.
  • You must feel so hopeless.
  • You just seem so dejected when you discuss this, to me.
  • You’re in a tough spot here.
  • I can feel the pain you feel.
  • When you’re in so much pain, the world must stop.
  • I wish you didn’t have to go through that.

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