Examples of Empathy in the Workplace (And How To Foster It)
“People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.” Tim Cook, CEO at Apple
For companies that struggled to understand the need to shift to remote work, COVID-19 didn’t give them a chance to think twice before making the move. Suddenly, a large percentage of the global workforce began to work from home without a clearly-defined plan for communication channels or workflows.
Before the pandemic, tons of research showed that remote workers enjoyed benefits ranging from job satisfaction to flexibility, employee retention, and increased levels of productivity. Imagine waking up whenever you want to and heading straight into a Google Hangout meeting, or picking up your child in the middle of the work afternoon. Remote work gave people the benefit of working at hours comfortable for them.
As the weeks passed, the downsides of remote work began to gradually surface. From employees feeling burnout thanks to working odd hours to having Zoom fatigue and feeling frustrated and isolated; workplace empathy took a decline.
Hybrid models have now become a normalised way of working. Because of which, a lot of organizations are making empathy at the centre of their remote work ecosystem. A recent study of 150 CEOs found that over 80% recognize empathy as their foundation to success – a big jump from just 20% prior to the pandemic.
So what propelled leaders to foster empathy training amongst their employees at such a large scale?
Employees began to feel less connected to colleagues and the workplace. And that's not surprising! When we trade face-to-face interaction for virtual interactions, the opportunities for colleagues to connect on a personal level—let alone express empathy—are few and far between. In fact, with co-workers spending most of their day staring at screens or communicating through email or messages they don’t feel motivated to offer real-time feedback or responses.
It was only a matter of time before leaders began to identify red flags such as lack of collaboration, increased stress and anxiety, and a decline in overall morale amongst employees.
On a commitment to help employees bounce back from a period of disconnection, empathy training became the necessity to make remote work – a success
A survey by State of Workplace Empathy revealed that 96% of respondents ranked empathy as an important company culture trait. And yet, 92% of employees strongly believe that empathy remains undervalued and that number continues to increase over the years. This is especially in the case of remote work.
People talk less and see each other less, which leads to less exchange, less empathy for each other, less trust, less collaboration and less team spirit.
Buffer and AngelList published their 2020 State of Remote Work report with insights from over 3,500 remote employees globally. And one key finding from their survey results revealed a striking conclusion:
People who don’t recommend remote work are on teams split between offices and remote workers.
53% of respondents who didn’t recommend remote work worked at companies with a mix of remote and office-based workers. These employees were experiencing communication and collaboration challenges synonymous with working in an organization with a varied workforce.
What this report revealed was a stark disconnect in empathy. This means that remote workers are less likely to thrive and feel included as an essential part of the team at organizations with a significant proportion of in-office employee interactions.
This isn’t surprising, after all. When we talk of empathy, we talk about walking in someone else’s shoes or understanding someone else’s point of view. However, can James (who lives in New York) in Engineering be willing to work from home to empathize with Cheryl from Product Marketing who works remotely in Omaha or with Joe who works in Employer Branding and lives in Croatia? Most likely not! And why would he, when all of the fun happens at the office!
So, what happens when people work remotely? A lack of empathy, if not corrected, can reduce team morale, affect employees' mental health, and lead to a decrease in productivity and turnover.
👬 What does empathy in the workplace mean?
Empathy is more than expecting your employees to put themselves in their colleagues’ shoes, and understand their perspective. It is something that needs to be built with patience, because at the end of the day, they’re not family – just a cohort of people working together.
You need to take steps that encourage your people to recognize one another’s emotions, feelings, and gain insights into their mood. This way, they will feel motivated to support each other during conflicts, or challenging times,
Empathy in the workplace is the ability to consider and understand your colleague’s or team member’s perspective. When you (as an employee) show empathy, it means you understand what it feels like to walk in another person’s shoes, you gain a sense of their experience and the feelings they might be having and you support them through those challenging situations.
Empathy isn’t the same as sympathy. Sympathy is the feelings of sorrow, concern and pity for someone. Empathy, on the other hand, means having a shared perspective of someone else’s emotions.
For example, an employee can feel sympathetic towards their colleague’s personal loss without getting too involved. Empathy is when an employee notices a new hire struggling with a task, understands the situation, and offers to guide them.
📚 Types of empathy
According to renowned psychologist, Daniel Goleman, empathy-driven leadership is one of the five key components of emotional intelligence. This shouldn't come as a surprise: after all, if you're in charge of leading people through their working lives, then being able to imagine how they feel at any given time is going to be useful.
Empathy has been divided into three major categories: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy.
We'll discuss each below.
Cognitive empathy involves understanding how the mind of another person functions. It doesn't require any emotional engagement on the part of the observer, but it's rather somewhat like understanding what the other person might be thinking.
Managers should consider using their skills of cognitive empathy to better understand how their team members are feeling, This helps them to tailor their leadership style to inspire their teams on any given day. Similarly, sales executives can use it to gauge a customer’s mood and use that information to determine how best to proceed.
Imagine finding someone crying in a public place such as a restaurant or sitting close to a friend as they cry. They cry while talking with you and they share their pain with you. The more you observe their facial expressions and hear the choked, tremulous sound of their voices, the more likely it is that you begin to feel all the same emotions as them.
You feel sad as they show their sadness and it makes you want to bring them comfort using your words, actions, and gestures. In this case, our brain has shifted from the cognitive perspective into one that shares the emotional experience. This is why emotional empathy is sometimes referred to as "affective empathy" because it affects or changes you. It's not just about knowing how someone feels, but also creating genuine rapport with them as they battle with their current emotions.
Social psychology researchers Hodges and Myers divided emotional empathy into three components:
- Feeling the same emotion as the other person (often referred to as emotional contagion or “catching” someone else’s tears).
- Feeling distressed in response to the other person’s pain.
- Feeling compassion for another person (also referred to as empathetic concern).
Emotionally empathetic people are sensitive and often get hurt by other people's pain. It’s already challenging for them to deal with other people’s problems head-on, so if these problems aren’t resolved, it affects their mental health too.
Emotional generosity burnout can be avoided by:
- Taking an occasional break from it all
- Setting boundaries and strengthening your coping mechanisms.
These strategies help your employees identify ways to help without damaging your emotional wellbeing in the process. In organizations where leaders display emotional empathy, it helps to build trust between them and their team members and develop genuine rapport and openness.
Compassionate empathy involves sharing another person's emotional pain and taking practical steps to reduce it while simultaneously having concern for that person.
For example, imagine that one of your team members is very upset or angry because they recently lost a potential client due to a mistake on their part. Showing support can go a long way to help them through the situation and inspire them to perform better the next time around.
However, it's important to not only show empathy for their emotional reaction, but also for the actual situation they were in. You can set aside some time to listen and offer practical advice or guidance on what happened and how they can do better the next time.
In an organization, here’s how the three types of empathy play out.
❓ Why is empathy important in the workplace?
Empathy is a trait many hiring managers look for when recruiting employees. Here are some reasons why empathy in the workplace is an important skill:
Improves social skills
Regardless of the industry or job, encouraging your employees to maintain positive working relationships with colleagues and customers will continuously improve their social skills and grow their career.
Your customers will be able to build trust and loyalty towards your employees. As a manager, you can train your people to be more empathetic by:
- Asking more questions
- Be more observant
- Respond thoughtfully
- Understanding and meeting client needs
Makes every employee a great team player
Empathy is an important skill required from every employee to work in sync with other team members. When they understand other people’s points of view, it makes it easy for your team to quickly solve any problems.
In 2016, Google initiated a research: Project Aristotle on why some of their teams fared, while others faltered. Groups that ranked high shared common behaviors like:
- Each team member was able to equally participate, and voice out their opinion during conversations. Everyone spoke roughly the same amount.
- Team members were successfully able to understand each other's ‘nonverbal cues’ like tone of voice and expressions. Anytime an employee appeared feeling low, their colleagues were able to show concern, and support them during challenging times. support and concern
Empathy is a bedrock of emotional intelligence. The ability to connect with others and show empathy is essential. It's what makes a person human. Apart from our personal relationships, the workplace demands it because people in a company need to get along with one another and be willing to help each other when the time comes. Connecting with your employees helps you appreciate their points of view as well as communicate clearly and speak about any concerns they might have.
Also, emotionally intelligent leaders are more effective and productive because they know how to recognize the feelings and needs of their employees and instill a sense of confidence in them to succeed. These leaders also tend to achieve better results because they can effectively remove barriers that might otherwise hinder productivity by fostering stronger relationships with their teams. In addition, they promote a sense of belonging amongst everyone on their team which, as you can imagine, makes everyone involved happier! A manager who understands what each person needs can work on keeping morale high and giving a sense of purpose and fulfilment by making sure each person has an opportunity to give all they've got.
Empathy encourages collaboration that fuels productivity which results in higher employee satisfaction and success. A lack of empathy amongst remote employees often leads to a feeling of isolation, leaving a dent in their productivity.
You can build empathy amongst your employees by arranging sessions that involve face-to-face interactions. Another approach would be to show how their input is valuable, and what kind of positive impact their work leaves on people. This will push them to work harder, and motivate them to collaborate with their colleagues.
Improves cultural competence
Companies with an open-minded and accepting culture take pride in having a diverse workforce. This means employees from different cultures come together to work towards a common goal. To foster a work culture where people can seamlessly collaborate without any conflicts requires empathy training.
Empathetic listening to other employees’ culture can progressively change one’s attitude towards them. It helps to build positive interracial connections that fosters an ecosystem of trust and growth.
🎓 Can you learn empathy?
Is empathy genetic? The answer is yes. Research shows that the ability to practice empathy is influenced by genetics. Scientists found variations in two genes- CNTNAP2 and NTRK2 - which could account for an individual's ability to read and respond to social cues more accurately.
For those who aren’t genetically empathetic, potential barriers to feeling empathy could be:
- Your upbringing.
- How people treated you when you had emotional issues.
- Messages you received about the value of expressing emotions.
- Fear of becoming overwhelmed or being perceived in a certain way.
Irrespective of these, empathy skills are teachable. While some people have a natural gift for emotional intelligence and empathy, it’s possible to acquire these skills yourself. In fact, emotional intelligence is closely related to empathy.
Just like the way people learn a new behavior or skill, they can learn empathy by implementing a cycle of instructions, modelling, rehearsal, and receiving feedback.
The more you understand another person’s emotional state, the better you will be able to respond.
🏢 Examples of empathy tn the workplace
Real-life examples of empathy in the workplace could look like the following:
A teacher empathizes with a student who has trouble with a course or topic by organizing an afterschool activity.
A retail employee empathizes with a customer whose heels broke after purchasing a pair of shoes from the store.
Marketing, Product and Sales teams empathize by understanding customers' pain points and creating solutions to make their lives easier.
A content writer empathizes with their target audience’s challenges by writing an article that highlights their emotional journeys and provides a solution.
In organizations, co-workers show empathy by collaborating and asking each other for help.
Colleagues respectfully listen, understand their co-workers differing perspectives and share their own POV during brainstorming sessions without insulting others or turning the session into a debate.
A company’s leadership shows empathy by genuinely listening to feedback from employees and incorporating them into their business processes.
Learning and Development teams would empathize with Customer Support teams by creating effective learning programs that help customer representatives perform better at their jobs and offer excellent customer service.
A recruiter empathizes with a candidate who needs to reschedule an interview at the last minute because of an emergency.
Managers would empathize with their team members having a bad day and ask them to take the day or week off (depending on the situation).
🏆 How to effectively foster empathy in the workplace
In our webinar, “How To Make Hybrid Work for People & Culture,” we addressed this very topic. We identified a clear gap between manager expectations and employee plans – a situation that contributes to the alarming statistics detailing the number of business leaders losing touch with their remote employees and how empathy contributes to inclusivity for remote and hybrid workers.
Not surprisingly, a 2019 Gartner study revealed that companies that create a culture of belonging achieved:
- A 6.2% increase in on-the-job effort.
- A 5% increase in employee retention
- Almost 3% increase in employee performance (individually).
So, how can organizations effectively foster empathy in the workplace, irrespective of remote or hybrid working conditions?
1. Develop a culture of empathy
For companies that are focused on the mental health of their employees, creating a culture of empathy within their teams is an excellent way to foster empathy in the workplace. It allows team members to take a step back from every situation and recognize that every person is motivated by different things and has different needs depending on who they're dealing with each time.
Empathy helps employees understand the perspectives, intentions, and needs of those around them. This leads to stronger relationships, a better overall emotional state and an outstanding company culture. It also provides good foundations for effective remote team communication.
When managers demonstrate empathy, team members feel heard, respected and understood. They are more likely to share their struggles, which allow managers to help them resolve issues at the moment and address concerns that might arise. This applies to all workplace settings – irrespective of whether it’s a remote working environment, hybrid or in-office work environment.
2. Encourage team development
One way to encourage team development is by creating impactful connections. Connection is like the power grid that enables all available systems to work in unison.
That’s why we designed a connection program where your employees can automatically connect on Slack or Microsoft Teams for casual meetups, meaningful conversations, or even walking meetings. With this program, your team can connect on a way deeper level just by talking about the right questions.
Your employees can ask questions about “their highest highs and lowest lows” - which allows both parties to share some intimate things and grow together nicely on a call.
Here’s what Zavvy’s connection program template looks like:
Ensuring your team is connected ensures everyone's voices are heard, are understood in their pursuits, and makes it easier for them to get their jobs done.
3. Organize virtual social events
Virtual happy hours and activities like remote cooking classes and other training are great ways to bring your team together in a relaxed social setting, even if they are not physically together.
To keep things laid back, use icebreakers, play games and share fun stories during your social events. This would make your employees more comfortable with each other. It also helps them become closer as a team, and also contributes to empathy by giving team members a glimpse into their co-workers’ lives that they wouldn’t know otherwise.
💡 Check out our article on 25 virtual wellness ideas for remote employees
4. Make communication as easy as possible
As companies continue to navigate remote working scenarios, integrating remote hires into the team, culture and processes ensure they don’t feel left out. One way to achieve this is via easy communication.
Communication is essential in the formation of any culture, and remote workers are part of this. Using asynchronous communication creates a work schedule that perfectly harmonizes with hybrid, remote and office workers.
Furthermore, encourage communication between in-office employees, hybrid and remote workers by holding regular team meetings where everyone can participate, including the ability for those who work remotely to attend meetings or online chat rooms.
As a manager, pay attention to the non-verbal cues of your team members during meetings:
- Do they appear to be stressed out?
- Are they fidgeting and unable to focus?
- Does their body language show signs of them being disengaged and disinterested?
- Are they avoiding eye contact with you but looking elsewhere in the room instead?
Reach out to them personally after the meeting and acknowledge that you observed their body language. Doing this shows them that you care and that their health and happiness is of utmost priority to you as their manager.
5. Support managers
Leading a diverse, multicultural team can be especially challenging because it requires leaders to understand people who have different perspectives and experiences; and effectively communicate across those differences. Understanding people from different countries, cultures and subcultures requires cultural intelligence and empathy.
Empathetic managers become more successful because they get to know the people who work for them and can discover how best to motivate each person in their team — a critical part of how to build and organize a successful organization anywhere in the world.
➡️ How to foster empathy in the workplace, with Zavvy
To foster a healthy work culture, organizations should show their employees that they are valued. Having empathy for others at the workplace shouldn't just be assumed but implemented internally and encouraged by all stakeholders, including leaders.
A comprehensive employee enablement system like Zavvy, which not only connects your employees but also builds stronger relationships, is important.
Here are just a few of the solutions and tools we offer to help your workforce (whether remote, hybrid, or back in the office) achieve their full potential:
🚀 Onboarding workflows that take newcomers by the hand and lead them to full integration and productivity.
🌱 People development frameworks that create role clarity and guide people along their development path.
☕️ Coffee roulettes and connection programs to connect colleagues remotely.
📊 Performance reviews that are fair and transparent
💪 Training programs that deliver content step by step instead of overwhelming learners.
We also offer our cutting-edge 360-degree feedback software, which ensures everyone's voice is heard while propelling employees forward in their professional growth and company value.
📅 Schedule a demo to learn more.