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Empathy at work: A highly desirable employee characteristic


Empathy at work is a big topic of conversation right now. For good reason, empathy is considered a must-have skill for company leadership.

But what about your general workforce – is this trait as important and valuable within this wider group? The answer is absolutely yes.

Everyone, regardless of their role or level of seniority, should demonstrate empathy.

Even if an employee doesn’t manage direct reports, they’re still part of a team, supporting the work of their peers and influencing the people with whom they work closest.

Let’s discuss why empathy is such a critical and sought-after skill, and how you can help your employees develop empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s:

  • Thoughts
  • Feelings
  • Experiences
  • Viewpoints
  • Needs
  • Preferences

In other words, an empathetic employee is able to put themselves in another person’s shoes and grasp their perspective – regardless of whether they agree or disagree with it – and express genuine care and concern for this individual.

Specific qualities are often associated with empathetic employees, such as:

Why is empathy such a hot buzzword?

Have you heard the phrase, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about?”

All employees have worries and stressors in their lives that they bring into and encounter within the workplace.

Especially in the past few years, the workplace has shifted dramatically.

For example, recently we’ve all experienced:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic and its continued fallout
  • Social unrest
  • Tension-inducing current events around the world
  • Economic uncertainty
  • Increased political polarization

There seem to be more factors at play pushing people apart and emphasizing their differences than bringing them together to establish commonalities and connections.

At the same time, the rise of remote and hybrid work has blurred the boundaries between professional and personal worlds. These circumstances have allowed employees’ personal issues and stressors to bleed into the workplace as never before. And for hybrid and remote employees, it can feel like workloads have increased and they’re never off the clock.

In short, empathy is becoming a popular concept because we all could use a lot more of it as we try to achieve work-life balance and personal wellbeing against a backdrop of increased stress, isolation, division and the turmoil that comes with constant change.

When empathy matters in the workplace

When we make assumptions about other people based on our biases, or don’t make the effort to understand the rationale behind co-workers’ words or actions, our natural impulse reaction may be judgment and even hostility. For example:

What’s wrong with this person? Why are they acting this way?”

This person always seems distracted. They’re so lazy and don’t care.”

I don’t understand why this person thinks this way. What a terrible idea.”

This person probably doesn’t like me. I’m going to avoid them and disengage.”

Why does this person always need help? Can’t they carry their own weight?”

Many workplace scenarios call for employees to demonstrate empathy toward each other.

Sometimes, employees simply struggle with the day-to-day stress of balancing high workloads and feeling overwhelmed and burned out.

Other times, empathy is warranted in more delicate situations, including:

  • An employee grieving a loss
  • An employee dealing with an illness or caring for someone with an illness
  • Unexpected personal crisis
  • Conflicts between co-workers who don’t see eye to eye on an issue or how to conduct a work assignment
  • An employee getting passed over for a promotion – or even being demoted
  • The prospect of layoffs

By practicing empathy, your employees can:

  • Enhance communication with team members and ward off misunderstandings
  • Resolve conflicts faster and mitigate hurt feelings
  • Improve team dynamics and cohesion
  • Forge new connections and strengthen existing relationships with co-workers
  • Encourage diversity and inclusion
  • Reinforce a culture of caring, which is linked to improved productivity, morale and retention

Tips to help employees practice empathy at work

So, what does it actually look like for employees to practice empathy with each other? Here are some easy ways to incorporate empathy into a daily routine.

1. Assume best intentions of others

When we don’t understand someone’s perspective, it can be easy to assume the worst about them. However, this mindset allows negativity and potentially inaccurate biases to flourish and can destroy relationships.

Instead, approach each interaction with team members with a positive view. There may very well be more to the story underlying their behavior that you don’t yet know.

2. Listen more than you speak

When a team member discusses a challenge they’re experiencing, don’t interrupt them with tales of how you experienced something similar or offer unsolicited advice for what you think they should do. Sometimes, people just want to be heard and understood.

In these moments, practice active listening skills, which involves:

  • Focusing on what is being said
  • Making eye contact
  • Acknowledging what someone has said by repeating it back or requesting clarification on certain points
  • Avoiding nonverbal communication that could convey a lack of interest, such as fidgeting
  • Minimizing distractions

3. Ask questions

Don’t rely on your assumptions about a situation. Respectfully and thoughtfully ask team members questions so you can better understand the challenge they’re facing or their perspective on an issue.

4. Validate others’ feelings

Show that you recognize and understand what others are feeling, which is a critical part of conveying nonjudgment and building trust. You can say things like, “I’m sorry you’re experiencing this problem. I’m sure it must be so frustrating. I appreciate your letting me know what’s going on.”

5. Step outside your comfort zone

Your biases can impact how you perceive others, especially those team members of different backgrounds and experiences. Remember: Different doesn’t equate with wrong or bad. To be more empathetic, you may just need to open yourself up to new experiences and broaden your way of thinking.

  • Be open to meeting new people in the office – even seeking out people who are different from you.
  • Consider others’ ideas and learn from them.
  • Challenge your own biases.

This can encourage diversity of thought as well as inclusion in the workplace.

6. Offer to help

One of the questions you should ask a team member who’s struggling is, “How can I help you?” For example, if they’re overwhelmed with their current workload, you could take some responsibilities off their plate or volunteer to serve as their back-up. This also demonstrates that you’re a team player.

7. Recognize others’ accomplishments or strengths

When people feel valued, it can help them overcome a challenge or setback. To remind team members of their worth, use peer recognition. Call them out in front of others for their:

  • Talents they bring to the table
  • Goals they’ve met
  • Achievements they’ve secured
  • Hard work

8. Take care of yourself

You can’t be empathetic to others if you’re stressed out, in a negative mindset and not taking care of yourself. Prioritize your wellbeing and work-life balance so you’re most likely to engage team members in a respectful and productive way.

Summing it all up

Empathy at work is a highly valued trait in leadership and team members alike. Given the current workplace landscape and the significant changes that have occurred, the ability for someone to put themselves into a co-worker’s shoes and see their perspective so that they can ultimately understand their behavior and words is critical. Being an empathetic team member helps employees to support colleagues, avoid unnecessary conflicts, be more inclusive and simply be more caring individuals. There are certain steps your workforce can take to develop their natural empathetic tendencies.

To continue learning more about creating a positive culture focused on people’s wellbeing, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to employee engagement.