Management

Why Choose Empathy in the Workplace (Examples for Modern Teams)

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Why Choose Empathy in the Workplace (Examples for Modern Teams)
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Why Choose Empathy in the Workplace (Examples for Modern Teams)

“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” – Barack Obama.

Empathy lies at the core of human connection, yet we find it lacking in the workplace. It’s a skill that helps us understand conflict and create environments that allow our people to thrive and feel supported.

With offices becoming more reliant on technology than ever before, our connections to other people in our teams have been stretched thin.

Remote and hybrid working has added many sought-after benefits to jobs but has given rise to virtual walls, making it harder to consider the people on the other side of the screen as real.

More than ever, leaders in business need to be tapping into their empathetic side to help employees navigate the abundant changes to their place of work.

This article covers examples of empathy in the workplace, the real situations that may arise, and how an empathetic hand can make a world of difference.

What is Empathy in the Workplace

What is Empathy in the Workplace?

Empathy is something we need in every aspect of our lives. It helps us understand what someone else is feeling. It’s a sign of emotional intelligence and is a key skill needed to navigate through complex social landscapes.

In the workplace, using empathy is one way to create a people-first environment. Seeing employees not as cogs in the machine but as real individuals with wants and needs that extend beyond work.

A common rule in some workplaces is: Leave your problems at the door.

This rule may be a practical request for ensuring staff maintain focus on their work during company time, but it’s an impossible ask ignoring that people are real.

Bosses who can’t tap into empathy at work can do nothing to tackle a toxic workplace. Where understanding and compassion are needed, they throw down the rulebook, creating resentment amongst their people.

Empathy comes naturally to many people, while others may struggle. It’s considered a “soft skill” at work, meaning it’s something a person is born with rather than a learned behavior.

However, leaders who commit to learning and practicing empathy can develop these skills over time. As a sought-after workplace skill, it’s worth investing time in.

Here are some of the characteristics that define empathy:

  • Perspective-taking: Instead of letting emotions lead actions, perspective-taking is about stopping and looking at a situation from an alternative point of view. In the workplace, this may mean looking at how the situation appears to someone else. As a manager, it would mean putting your biases in check and asking yourself more questions about what’s happened.
    • Example: Priti, the newest coffee shop team member, makes a latte but uses the wrong milk and adds too much foam. In this instance, the manager might criticize them for wasting stock; however, by taking perspective, they might realize the Priti has had insufficient training to be left alone making drinks.
  • Emotional resonance: This is the ability to connect with and influence the emotions of another. At work, this could be mirroring someone’s positive emotions following good news. However, emotional resonance also occurs with negative feelings, so if one person on the team is angry, this can spread, creating a toxic environment.
    • Example: Khalid, a senior employee, is having a bad day, talking down to his staff, being abrupt, and showing visible signs of stress and anger. Employees notice this and become more withdrawn as a result. In times like these, teams are less productive, and the workplace is less friendly.
  • Non-judgmental understanding: Being able to approach situations with a sense of balance when there are misunderstandings. Being non-judgmental means not making a moral judgment about another person as a result of the situation they are in.
    • Example: We previously mentioned the outdated “leave your problems at the door” rule. If a coworker has suffered a bereavement, they may be unable to focus on their duties entirely. The wrong approach would be to classify them as lazy. Instead, shifting their responsibilities or extending their deadlines may help them get back up to speed.
  • Active listening: Truly hearing and understanding what someone is saying, both verbally and non-verbally. To do this, you would ask questions, listen to the speaker’s tone of voice, and watch their body. Do not interrupt the speaker, but show signs of understanding through non-verbal cues like nodding your head.
    • Example: John has requested a meeting to discuss recent changes at work they believe have negatively impacted team productivity. His manager uses this opportunity to hear what John’s saying, takes notes on their discussion, and lets John speak about issues without the need to defend corporate actions.

Empathy Impacts on Workplace Dynamics

How Empathy Impacts on Workplace Dynamics

Empathy has fast become a sought-after skill for leadership roles within the workplace. As time has progressed, high-value employees are looking for more than just a paycheck from the places they choose to work.

Modern employees put value in more freedom, which may come from flexible hours or being able to opt in for hybrid work. Beyond that, they also want to work for good people and companies committed to innovating work conditions.

Tech startups like Google and Apple have driven these changes as they’ve redefined working conditions for employees at their businesses. Google, for example, has constantly been in the news for its work practices, which include superior health and life insurance, unlimited sick pay, generous parental leave, and on-site daycare facilities.

Google’s approach has been to create a workplace that genuinely alleviates personal concerns people may have. Empathy, looking for and understanding the problems that everybody faces, leads them to create a place of work that’s high in demand, meaning they can pick the best of the best.

Empathetic Leadership Examples

Creating the kind of workplace that gets in the news for all the right reasons doesn’t happen overnight. A significant culture shift is needed to put empathy at the center of decision-making, but when this happens, the positive work environment leads to lower staff turnover and more loyal employees.

Here are some examples of empathetic leadership in action:

  • Improving Communication in the Team: When managers concentrate on improving communication, they can help reduce miscommunication and misunderstanding between team members. Beyond the manager-employee relationships, it’s essential to create systems that enhance communication and collaboration among each team member.
    • Example: Sarah struggles to keep pace with rapid changes at work. Her manager, recognizing this, implements a weekly “kickoff meeting,” which gives each person a chance to ask questions, sets out weekly tasks, and provides real-time progress updates. As a result, Sarah has the opportunity to get feedback each week without being singled out and feels more prepared for her tasks.
  • Servant Leadership: This leadership style takes an empathetic approach to work dynamics. A servant leader is someone who puts the needs of the team above their own ambitions. Instead, they will work hard alongside their team and promote a culture of ‘we’re all in this together,’ which helps to deepen bonds at work.
    • Example: Tony leads a small software development team at a large multinational company. His role as a servant leader means his door is always open for support and guidance. He works proactively alongside his team to complete all tasks on time. When upper management praises Tony for his hard work shipping the latest software update, he ensures his team is appropriately credited and does not take it for himself.
  • Prioritizing Employee Wellbeing: Employees have lives outside of work, and sometimes, whether we like it or not, this can impact their output. It’s natural for people to have times of lower productivity, and there could be any number of reasons why: burnout, lack of sleep, family concerns, conflicts at work, a sudden illness, and plenty more. An empathetic manager will notice these changes and offer productive solutions.
    • Example: Terrence is a new father who struggles to balance his new responsibilities with work. His employer notices that Terrence has been arriving late more frequently, and his productivity levels have dropped. After explaining his struggles to his manager, Terrance switches to a flexible working schedule to better manage his time between family and work. He’s also given the information about the Employee Assitance Program, which offers counseling and resources for new parents.
  • Promoting Team Development: Employees tend to have aspirations beyond what they’re currently doing. An empathetic manager invests themselves in helping their staff achieve their career goals. The manager may offer opportunities for learning, skill development, and helping them to make connections. Instead of holding someone back because you don’t want to lose a good worker, you’ll be the champion of their growth.
    • Example: A tech company may send the development team to a conference. Here, they’ll be able to learn about emerging trends in their area, network with other professionals, and get hands-on with the latest technology. Once the team returns, the company arranges presentations and meetings for staff to share their learnings and suggest new ideas for growth.

Introducing these empathetic leadership qualities to your team directly correlates with employee satisfaction. If all these measures become commonplace, an employee will feel supported, empowered, and cared for by their leadership. You’ll be rewarded with loyalty, increased productivity, and a workplace culture that attracts and retains top talent.

Empathy in the Workplace Examples

Real-Life Examples of Empathy in the Workplace

Each workplace is its own distinct entity, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to empathy. People make a place what it is, and since the human spirit is so complex, you’ll need to decide the best way to create a more empathetic workplace.

However, there are some universal situations that all managers must address at some point in their careers. Here are some real-life examples of empathy in the workplace:

Supporting an Employee During Crisis

Personal crisis affects productivity, even in the most hard-headed employees. Work can play a pivotal role in navigating times of distress by providing a safe environment for someone to escape to. Many people will find comfort in focusing on their work, but real-life issues can weigh heavily on a person and eat away at their productivity.

Ciara has been a rising star at her office and is known for being hardworking and punctual. Recently, she has distanced herself from her colleagues and refuses to engage with people. Her manager notices this switch in Ciara’s personality, but instead of reprimanding her for refusing to collaborate, he initiates a welfare check to make sure everything is okay. Ciara tells him her mother has received a terminal illness diagnosis, and she’s beset with worry.

Her manager offers his condolences and suggests that Ciara take the rest of the week off. He also gives her the option of switching to a flexible schedule to spend more time with her Mother.

Ciara switches to a hybrid schedule, allowing her to make medical appointments with her mother and help attend to her personal affairs. Grateful for the opportunity to do this, Ciara feels less stressed, and her relationship with others in the office improves again. Her colleagues recognize the compassion offered and feel a renewed sense of pride for the company.

Bridging the Gap Between Cultural Difference

Companies are increasingly composed of diverse cultures as true international working has taken root. One benefit of this is tapping into a huge talent pool and bringing in new perspectives. However, cultural differences can affect the workplace, but this presents an excellent learning opportunity.

Sofea has joined an aerospace engineering company from Singapore. Her team is mainly made up of Americans who are all excited to work alongside Sofea. As a Muslim, Sofea observes Ramadan in March and April, which involves fasting from dawn til dusk.

Her colleague John suggests postponing the bi-weekly working lunch during Ramadan to support Sofea. Her manager also made accommodations so Sofea could have a private place to pray. Sofea was grateful to her colleagues for taking an interest in her religion and appreciated this gesture from her manager, John, and the team.

These simple acts helped Sofea feel respected and included in the team. It helped to deepen the bond between all team members and created a more cohesive work environment.

Making Mental Health Matter

We all have days where we feel like a million dollars and other days where we feel like we’re sinking to the bottom of the barrel. A bad day can become a bad week or even a month if people aren’t allowed to prioritize self-care. When this happens, it will affect their productivity and potentially spread to other team members.

Brian is a marketing executive working tirelessly on a massive campaign for the company’s most lucrative client. Throughout the campaign, Brain shows all the signs of burnout: working into the night, looking completely drained, not eating, and starting to make simple mistakes.

His manager, Lisa, takes Brian to one side to ask about his workload. Brian admits he has been pushing himself harder to compensate for the lack of resources provided. Understanding that Brain is one of the firm’s most successful marketers, she encourages him to take a day off to recover.

While Brain is recuperating, Lisa reviews the company’s resources and manages to allocate an assistant to help with his workload. On his return, Brain is grateful for the extra help, and together, he and his assistant complete the campaign on time and under budget.

Examples of Lack of Empathy in the Workplace

Examples of Lack of Empathy in the Workplace

Where empathy is lacking, toxicity can spread like wildfire. Employees may be less engaged with their work and may leave the company. If people don’t feel properly supported and understood, they’ll be less inclined to raise problems and seek help when needed.

To give you an idea of what happens when there is a lack of empathy in the workplace, let’s go through some examples:

Ignoring People’s Personal Lives

Jamal works at a digital agency where collaboration thrives. He’s going through divorce proceedings, and his focus at work has started to wane. Jamal has stopped contributing to meetings, and his work lacks the quality it’s usually known for. His boss, Antonio, criticizes him during a meeting with the entire team present, reprimanding him for his sudden lack of commitment.

With no support from his boss and a public shaming in front of his team, Jamal’s performance declines further until he feels he has no choice but to leave. The rest of the team’s morale drops, and every employee avoids approaching Antonio with problems for fear of similar treatment.

Limiting an Employee’s Career Progression

Saorise is an architect who joined the company after completing her degree on an unpaid internship scheme. She quickly made a name for herself as talented and hardworking, eventually securing a full-time position at the company. Saorise is placed in Belinda’s team and enthusiastically contributes to client pitches.

Belinda uses many of Saorise’s ideas but keeps the credit for herself, and when this is raised, she accuses Saorise of not being a team player. After three years in the team, Saorise feels ready to progress to the next stage of her career and applies for an internal promotion. Her boss, afraid of losing a good team member, refuses to write a letter of recommendation.

Saorise is passed over for the role and, as a result, finds a position at a rival firm. The rest of Belinda’s team are unhappy with their boss’s treatment of Saorise, and requests for transfers start to go into HR.

Providing Unhelpful Feedback

Mateo has just started a new career in the IT department of a large energy company. Each new employee is placed on a 3-month probation period with regular meetings to monitor progress. His new boss, Michael, initially provides an excellent roadmap for Mateo’s training, but after the first month, their weekly meetings start to be postponed.

As issues arise, Mateo tries asking Michael for guidance but is told to figure it out himself. At the end of his probation period, Michael berates Mateo for not being good enough and dismisses the lack of support. He extends the probation period by three months and tells Mateo if his work doesn’t improve, he will be fired on the spot.

Mateo suggests they create an action plan together to ensure his work gets to the level expected of him, but Michael tells him no. Feeling unsupported and concerned about working for Michael long-term, Mateo chooses to leave immediately. As a result, the IT team suffers a backlog of tickets, and Michael must begin the hiring process again.

Conclusion

Barak Obama once remarked, “Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” We may not be talking about empathy on a global scale in this article, but it can and will change the workplace for the better, which, for many people, is one of the most important parts of their personal world.

Some leaders may believe that showing empathy is a sign of weakness, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It takes strength of character to walk a mile in someone else shoes and actively choose to understand and support them.

Show your employees empathy, and they’ll reward you with hard work and loyalty. Switching from an autocratic leadership style to one based on empathy pays dividends.

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