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Empathy in the workplace is essential to a positive employee experience.
Workplace empathy creates an environment where employees and customers feel valued, appreciated and cared for. Empathy unites business leaders and employees and helps build an inclusive and positive corporate culture. In a world where employees often measure up potential employers based on culture, empathy and kindness, understanding and displaying authentic empathy is crucial for modern businesses.
As empathy becomes a core leadership competency, organizations must put energy toward training, team building and education.
What is empathy?
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another."
Sometimes confused with sympathy -- or seen as a synonym of sympathy -- empathy is different. Sympathy is defined as having a sincere concern for someone experiencing something difficult. Empathy is when a person feels the emotional pain someone else is experiencing and participates in the emotions of the experience.
Workplace empathy benefits
Empathy in the workplace is important for many reasons. Employees can have longer tenure, increased engagement and more creativity. Empathy can also improve customer experience and strengthen relationships with clients and partners.
Here is a list of key benefits that workplace empathy brings.
Increased retention rates
Traditionally viewed as a soft skill, empathy is critical for the creation of safe and positive workplaces -- a priority for much of the workforce. Businessolver's "2023 State of Workplace Empathy" study found that 96% of people surveyed said flexible working hours are the most empathetic benefit an employer can offer, followed by workplace location at 93%. Furthermore, 54% of people surveyed said they would leave their current job if they were required to work in a physical office full time.
When employees feel that fostering empathy about both their work and personal lives is an important value to a company, job retention rates are higher due to a sense of belonging and psychological safety.
Improved customer experience
Being able to see things from a customer perspective can give businesses a competitive edge by giving them loyal customers who can become brand advocates. By putting themselves in their customers' shoes, marketing, sales and customer support teams can optimize their workflows and communications to improve customer experience.
Higher sales figures
Prioritizing empathy in the workplace can help businesses design products and services that cater well to customer and prospect needs. Thinking empathetically can create products and services to which customers respond well. This can turn them into repeat customers over longer periods of time.
Further innovation and creativity
A focus on empathy can boost creativity and innovation. Imagining how someone else feels or understanding their viewpoint can open avenues for exploring different ways to solve complex problems. This can lead to innovative product releases, fulfilled employees who get to express their creative sides and better business outcomes all round.
Businesses can increase empathy in the workplace by focusing on fostering empathy and empathy-related skills. Some of these skills might seem obvious, and some less so. But they all help create a company culture where empathy and its associated benefits can thrive.
Emotional intelligence encapsulates many skills that make up empathy. Merriam-Webster defines it as "the ability to recognize, understand, and deal skillfully with one's own emotions and the emotions of others." People who are well versed in their own emotions and what's driving them have a better idea of how to handle them when they threaten to overwhelm or affect others.
Benefits of having strong emotional intelligence in the workplace include being able to give context to and understand why someone has chosen to run or complete a project in a certain way; seeing things from a customer's perspective; and creating a healthy, supportive workplace environment.
Self-awareness is a key skill related to empathy. When a person understands and acknowledges why they think certain things and like to complete work-related tasks in a certain way, it enables them to see that co-workers have reasons for why they do things a certain way. This can lead to less conflict and more collaboration at work.
Curiosity is a skill that might not immediately come to mind when thinking about how to develop empathy, but it can be extremely helpful. Being curious -- especially about other people's experiences and opinions -- makes it easier to understand how they work, what they value, and why they approach projects and tasks the way they do. It can also help ease tensions and lead to better relationships.
Being open-minded is a key skill when it comes to empathy. Trying not to have such rigid beliefs and ways of approaching tasks makes it easier to collaborate with co-workers and to find solutions that might not have appeared before. Being open-minded is also a good way to foster connections, form strong working relationships and create psychologically safe workplaces.
Good listening skills enable people to understand others' perspectives and encourage sharing opinions and experiences. Active listening means having conversations with co-workers in safe spaces and focusing on compassion and sincere validation. Body language is also a crucial component of active listening, so avoid crossing your arms, looking at devices and making little to no eye contact.
Ways to increase empathy in the workplace
There are many ways to increase empathy in the workplace. Methods include investing in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training for all employees; watching for burnout; and having open forums with executive teams where employees can ask questions.
Here are some ways to increase empathy in the workplace.
Empathetic team leadership
Managers can focus on leading their teams with empathy and fostering genuine connections with their reports by having one-on-ones and team meetings that don't just focus on work tasks. Leadership can ask about people's personal lives and hobbies outside work to build trust and stronger relationships.
Burnout is becoming more common as more people understand the term and what stress can do to health. Leaders can monitor their employees for burnout and make adjustments to help prevent it. Ways that this can be done include having a true understanding of staff responsibilities and tasks, and making sure workloads are fair. Business leaders might also think about the effect that personal circumstances can have on employees, including family sickness, caregiving responsibilities, bereavement and divorce.
Tone of voice
Understanding and using the right tone of voice in verbal and written communications can help create empathetic workspaces. Employees and leadership should speak to each other in respectful, encouraging and positive tones. Using a calm and kind tone of voice can make people feel safe at work and able to communicate issues with leaders without fear of reproach.
Training for all employees in diversity, equity and inclusion is one of the most important and effective ways of increasing empathy in the workplace. By challenging biases, trying to understand how people from all backgrounds might feel and think, and working to increase equality and representation in the workplace, empathy can be increased and prejudice reduced.
Check out these tools to power your DEI program.
Team-building exercises outside the office give employees a chance to take a breather and connect with their team and managers on a more personal level. Regularly scheduling fun, non-work-focused activities lets co-workers bond, increasing job satisfaction.
Make charitable donations and encourage volunteering
Hosting fundraisers in offices -- such as charity bake sales and trivia nights -- and highlighting causes that the company is championing in internal communications can boost empathy beyond the confines of the office. Giving employees a paid day or two off each year to volunteer for a cause they feel passionate about can go even further.
Personalization for employees
Where possible, managers should prioritize personalizing how they communicate with their teams. This includes giving feedback in a way that each employee understands and appreciates, and conducting check-ins with reports at times that work for them. Personalization makes an employee feel valued and seen. Accommodating requests for a flexible schedule is also important, as it demonstrates how much a company values an employee.
Incorporate teams in decision-making
Asking for others' opinions and feedback when making a decision can strengthen empathy in the workplace. Whether it's a decision that will affect a customer or an employee, being invited to give an opinion makes employees feel valued and respected.
Have an open-door policy
An open-door policy means that employees can always ask their leaders questions or go to them for advice. It creates a "there's no such thing as a stupid question" environment and helps reports trust their managers and feel secure at work.
Access to executives
Town hall sessions -- virtual or in person -- where employees can ask executive teams questions about the business foster a feeling of belonging and connection. They also show employees that it's important for executives to have an open dialogue with staff and that leadership teams care about employee experience.
Be 'all in this together'
Being "all in this together" means that employees support each other -- through chaos and all -- and no one points fingers if something doesn't go as planned. This helps people build strong relationships with co-workers, feel like part of a team and work toward common goals.
Mixing with other teams
Teams can easily become siloed -- especially as companies grow larger. Having social mixers with other teams and encouraging role-shadowing days increases empathy as relationships are formed and people understand the responsibilities and challenges that colleagues handle in their roles.
Harriet Jamieson is a senior manager of custom content at TechTarget.