Here are actions organizations can take to increase empathy and avoid pitfalls of the shadow side of empathy in the workplace.
by Abigail Dunne-Moses
June 8, 2022
In business and life, the impact of empathy is powerful. Empathy is the competency of recognizing, understanding, and identifying with another person’s thoughts, feelings and experiences. Empathy in the workplace is positively related to job performance. Organizations that cultivate empathetic leadership are better able to drive innovation, envision new business strategies, adapt to change and build inclusive workplaces that better serve both customers and employees.
3 ways to foster empathy in the workplace
Empathy is the water that inclusion swims in. Empathy also fosters inclusion in the workplace by connecting coworkers on the human level. Like actual water, empathy can accumulate into an empathic pool, resulting in a workplace filled with experiences of psychological safety and belonging. The empathic pool can also run at a deficit when excessive withdrawals are made due to the shadow side that causes harm and compromises employee engagement, customer satisfaction and other indicators of organizational health. Here are actions organizations can take to increase empathy and avoid pitfalls of the shadow side of empathy in the workplace.
- Listen with empathy
Listening with empathy requires more than listening to understand. Listening to understand is paying attention to the nuances of the spoken word. Listening with empathy requires translating the meaning and feeling experienced in your connection with another person into behavior that builds empathic capital.
Reading (listening) between the lines is a common saying that means understanding something that is not openly stated. It can also mean comprehending another person’s spoken or unspoken experiences deeply. In that moment of comprehension, the superpower is activated, and the capability to communicate across barriers of age, gender and race is enabled. Listening beyond the words to the more profound thoughts, feelings and experiences is the key to activating empathy, building inclusion and learning to listen across cultural divides using intuition and social sensitivity.
Imagine an example: A team member expresses they want to take a step back from their current roles and responsibilities. An empathetic manager will focus on listening to the meaning and feeling behind the team member’s unique perspectives and experiences. This prepares the environment for a transparent and authentic conversation. Employees that have this kind of conversation describe their expertise in the following ways.
“My manager is amazing. I was able to have a real conversation with her.”
“I was afraid to have a meeting with my boss, but I was pleasantly surprised at how he listened in a caring way.”
“My Team Lead gets me. This is the first time I have had such a fantastic manager.”
Without saying, “help me understand,” and listening empathetically, the manager may not know that the person has a family emergency. By focusing on the person and engaging in compassionate dialogue, the manager can sense how their situation affects their personal and work life. Empathetic listening will allow the manager to identify multiple options to support the team member individually and the team collectively.
Additional empathetic listening best practices include:
- Listen for the good and tune into the why.
- Listen with patience. Do not hurry the other person.
- Listen curiously. Challenge ideas, assertions and philosophies.
- Listen for the truth with an open mind.
- Listen, no matter how much you may disagree.
- Listen from the other person’s point of view.
- Listen with interest and ask questions.
When leaders employ strong active listening skills, it creates an environment where employees feel safer addressing uncomfortable issues. Moreover, they will also be more likely to practice empathetic listening, building a workplace environment rooted in respect and inclusion.
- Demonstrate authenticity
Being authentic means being sincere and transparent about who you are, how you think and what you believe. Authenticity builds the trust that is the foundation of an inclusive culture. When employees witness authentic leadership, they are motivated to bring their authentic selves to work. Collaboration, trust and effective communication result when a team behaves with authenticity. What is beneath the surface in these scenarios is empathy. Like a pool, empathy is the water that authentic connection lives in. Activating authenticity enlarges the empathy pool. Here are ways leaders can activate authenticity:
- Express your authentic self at work and home.
- Tell your direct reports you genuinely value them for who they are and their talents.
- Create a safe space where employees can share their exact needs without fear of judgment or retaliation.
- Welcome new ideas and encourage productive discussions with sincerity.
- Demonstrate vulnerability by owning your mistakes to show your team that failure is a natural part of learning.
- Share your likes and dislikes, hobbies and interests transparently and appropriately.
- Be congruent – let your words, beliefs and thoughts match.
When leaders behave authentically, it creates an environment where employees feel safer addressing uncomfortable issues. As a result, employees will also be more likely to build a workplace environment rooted in empathy.
- Practice social sensitivity
Social sensitivity is the ability to identify, understand and respect the cues and contexts of others. It includes respecting the viewpoints and social norms which have different experiences (e.g., religion, gender, class). These experiences are aspects of employees’ lives that are core to their identity. When the behavior of social sensitivity is present, the entire organization connects and relates in a cultural context of inclusion. The behaviors that demonstrate social sensitivity also swim in the pool of empathy. These behaviors tend to create a positive environment that activates new ideas, evaluates work critically and shares responsibilities.
Leaders can activate empathy and social sensitivity by:
- Spending time with people who are different. Get to know their lifestyle, beliefs and worldview.
- Being interested in how people speak to each other and how teams collaborate.
- Paying attention to nonverbal cues such as body language, tone of voice and other behaviors that indicate how a person is responding to you.
- Taking classes to learn how to respect social identity and social norms.
- Learning a new language.
- Learning to seek the opinion of someone with whom you disagree on a specific issue.
- Taking inclusion-focused actions such as inviting someone new to a meeting.
When leaders behave with social sensitivity and empathy, it creates an environment where employees feel safer addressing uncomfortable issues. As a result, employees will also be more likely to build a workplace environment rooted in empathy.
The shadow side of empathy
Developing any new skill – including empathy – takes time and effort. While leaders need to have a safe space to practice being more empathetic, it’s also necessary for them to understand that empathy can be overused or used less effectively when not combined with other best practices. Encourage your leaders to avoid these pitfalls that come from compassion used ineffectively:
Empathy as reinforced biases
Research suggests people are more empathetic to those like them and more biased against those different from them. This can result in managers not leading with equity but instead unconsciously empathizing with direct reports similar to them by giving them better assignments, promotions and bonuses.
When dealing with reinforcement bias, consider:
- Taking the perspective of someone different from you.
- Putting organizational structures in place that will hold you accountable for preferential treatment.
- Seeking information that will help you make an informed decision.
Identifying with the suffering and troubles of others can be exhausting and even traumatic. For example, an ER doctor or nurse treats victims of violence, car accidents and other horrific injuries daily. Recent research suggests an overabundance of empathy – or misplaced heart – can ultimately lead to exhaustion and even apathy and prevent someone from helping the person that needs it.
When dealing with empathy fatigue, consider:
- Recognizing exhaustion.
- Caring for self – sleep, recreation, connection to family and friends.
- Receiving empathy from others.
Empathy can make us passionate, but it is not sustainable when overused. This powerful energy of compassion can dissipate before meaningful action is taken. An example of this phenomenon can be seen through social media. When a picture of a young refugee child washed up on the shores of Europe first appeared, it inspired millions of Facebook users to donate millions of dollars within a day. But in the following days, something else captivated our attention, and empathy for the refugee crisis was forgotten.
Empathy that is not grounded in development as a leader can lead to poor self-regulation characterized by impulsive behavior—the fits and starts wreaking havoc on trust, resulting in the tearing down of an inclusive organizational structure.
When dealing with episodic empathy, try:
- Focusing on one object of empathy at a time.
- Reflecting on why the object of empathy is significant.
- Consider how your empathy contributes to building an inclusive work environment.
Empathy is crucial for cultivating inclusive cultures that enable employees to feel valued and welcome. In addition to the moral imperative to practice empathetic leadership, research from the Center for Creative Leadership suggests empathy in the workplace is positively related to job performance. By activating empathy, leaders can create an inclusive work environment that increases performance indicators such as productivity, innovation, employee engagement and customer satisfaction. To make empathy sustainable, leaders should engage in and encourage consistent practice in small but meaningful ways.