by Shayne Thomas
20 Jun 2019
Should Empathy in the Workplace Exist?
Why a more “human” approach to the day-to-day can make all the difference
The answer to the question above should be a resounding “yes” from anyone reading this.
Sadly, we’re well aware that there are quite a few naysayers out there—forgive us if we’re calling you out—who believe that there’s no place for feelings at work. This typically stems from the misconception that empathy is a sign of weakness or a characteristic of poor leadership. (That is, for those who believe the only way to lead is with an iron fist!)
But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The only problem is that, for many, being workplace empathy doesn’t come naturally. Many of us, especially in our first jobs, have had to “earn our stripes” or “run the gauntlet” in order to begin climbing the proverbial ladder. Our managers may have used “tough love” tactics to teach us invaluable lessons (for them, at least) or even break us down. But what good does that do? If anything, it only serves to perpetuate an ongoing cycle of bad habits and destructive behaviors—all of which will only harm and eventually undermine your business in the long-term.
This is precisely why empathy in the workplace is so important. It’s about managing, supporting, and interacting with teams on a more human level, treating them with dignity and respect, just as much as it’s about leading with compassion and kindness. At first glance, it might all sound like fluff to you—because workplace empathy is one of those “soft skills” we talked about before—but the truth is, empathy is one of the greatest qualities any human being can embody. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that empathy in the workplace can do wonders for boosting employee happiness and increasing overall productivity, too.
Think of it like a chain reaction: when you treat people with kindness and respect, you begin to create a working environment that fosters open dialogue and increased collaboration, all of which improves the employee experience. This can have a positive “domino effect” across any organization. Even so, empathy all too often gets overlooked as a priority in the workplace.
Deadlines. Performance goals. Lack of sleep. Long commutes. Late nights at the office. Family issues. This list of all the things that can potentially stress your employees out is endless. Interactions with managers or other employees shouldn’t contribute to this stress, even if your business is in high-growth mode and everyone is firing on all cylinders.
Dedicating all of your team’s energy to achieve a common business goal is simply not an excuse to throw empathy by the wayside. These two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Workplace empathy doesn’t hinder business performance; it propels productivity and boosts talent retention. The good news: 91% of CEOs believe that there’s a link between empathy and a company’s financial performance; however, they also are well aware that as businesses grow, it becomes all too easy for the focus to shift to profits and productivity over the need to build a culture of compassion.
This doesn’t mean that empathy in the workplace requires a “top-down” approach either. Yes, it’s important for senior leaders and business owners to emulate, through their words and actions, how they expect their teams to operate. But there are other micro-relationships in the workplace where empathy—or the lack thereof—can have a far greater impact.
Let’s take a look at one of the most critical relationships in the workplace today: the employee-manager relationship. It’s no secret that many employees quit their bosses, not their jobs. In fact, 82% of employees say they would consider leaving their job to join a more empathetic organization. The dynamic that exists between a manager and employee can be the make or break for an employee’s experience.
To avoid the latter, managers must see their teams as more than just a handful of direct reports. They must coach them in their careers, encourage continued learning, support their well-being, and publicly value their contributions to both the team and the organization as a whole. When you look at it this way, empathy in the workplace—especially in the employee-manager relationship—comes down to supporting the whole person, not just their job function. In other words, it’s about being human. Easy, right?
Sometimes it’s easier said than done because, as humans, we are not infallible. We can be set in our ways or sometimes even molded by negative experiences from our past. This just means that workplace empathy must be upleveled as a priority within your organization and become a core component of your recruitment, engagement, and retention strategies. As you think about this holistically, consider asking yourself the following questions:
- Am I making (or attempting to make) more personal connections with my team?
- Am I giving my employees the feedback and support they need to succeed?
- Do my employees feel a true sense of belonging at work?
- Do my employees feel like their work is valued?
- Do we provide programs and benefits that take diverse needs into consideration?
The list goes on and on, but the key takeaway should be: by taking a more human approach to how you nurture your relationships at work, you’ll quickly see that empathy in the workplace has a tremendous amount of upside. There’s no fast and quick “rule” for making it happen. Though, as a general rule of thumb, it’s worth remembering the old adage: treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself. (That is, unless you’re a big fan of “tough love” or the “iron fist.”)