Empathy in the Workplace: is it Real, Effective, or Necessary?

Amanda Luzzader

A new and different buzzword has been making the rounds among offices and conference rooms: empathy.

Corporate buzzwords such as “synergy,” “verticalization,” “leveraging,” and “thoughtspace” have become a drearily common part of the American workplace experience. In fact, corporate buzzwords have become so trite and such an object of scorn, one can print out buzzword bingo cards to play with during board meetings.  

Recently, a new and different buzzword has been making the rounds among offices and conference rooms: empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy is generally defined as the act of or ability to sincerely understand and share in another person’s experiences and emotions. You could also say that showing empathy is the opposite of being dismissive or judgmental, and many mental health professionals prescribe it as an excellent way to resolve conflict and develop healthy interpersonal bonds. 

Empathy is similar to sympathy, and if you refer to an ordinary English dictionary, you’ll come away with the impression that the two words are closely related, if not synonymous. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll find some key differences. Mainly, sympathy is usually associated with understanding derived from one’s own perspective and based on one’s own experiences. For example, if you have a friend who has been in a bad car accident, you might support her by telling her that you have also been in a car accident, and so you understand what she is going through. A sympathetic person may likewise offer solutions or lessons based on their own personal experiences: “After my car crash, here’s what I did to feel better.” 

Importantly, sympathy is likely to be rather one-sided: your friend’s car crash makes you think about and relive your own car accident, which may make you feel bad—whether or not you discuss it with your friend.

Empathy, on the other hand, arises even when there is no similar experience, and it does not involve advice—it’s based on listening and understanding. The Encyclopedia of Social Psychology provides this definition: “Empathy is often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation: One understands the other person’s experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it.” So, to the friend who has been in a serious car accident, an expression of empathy might involve merely listening carefully to everything the friend has to say about it. Responses, if any are even called for, would not involve prescriptive advice or a recounting of similar experiences. Because while it might be nice for someone to learn that others have been through similar hardships, phrases such as, “I know exactly what you’re going through” may have a dismissive effect, or lead a person to think that their experience is unremarkable and therefore not important. 

Instead, a more typical empathetic response sounds like this: “That sounds awful. I’m so sorry it happened to you.” 

Why is workplace empathy suddenly a thing?

It’d be difficult to precisely explain why empathy has recently become so popular in business blogs and is so frequently on the lips of managers and supervisors. A recent article published by Forbes Magazine connects the rise of workplace empathy with the COVID-19 pandemic, when the American workplace was effectively turned on its head. Forbes states that pandemic-related challenges and complexities have called for new management styles and techniques, and, “One of those capabilities is empathy.” The article asserts that empathy is “a vital leadership competency.”

What does empathy in the workplace look like?

In a second article from Forbes Magazine (you might say Forbes is really leveraging the empathy thoughtspace), empathy has led to a new workplace focus on the mental health and personal lives of workers. While there may have always been some level of awareness of mental and emotional health, the fear and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected the mental health of thousands of workers and thereby aimed a spotlight at the issue. Mental health in the workplace is now a primary concern for many supervisors, owners, and bosses. In similar fashion, workplace closures and the widespread phenomenon of working from home intermingled the personal and work lives of the American job force in unprecedented ways, thus throwing new light on that issue, too.

Nonprofit organization Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) says that empathy in the workplace can be as simple as an adjustment in the way managers and workers interact. In a recent online article, CCL states, “To show the highest levels of empathy in the workplace, managers should focus on listening to hear the meaning behind what others are saying by paying attention to not only the words being said, but also the feelings and values being shown, through nonverbal cues such as tone, pace of speech, facial expressions, and gestures.” In other words, workplace empathy is exactly like regular empathy: it’s about listening carefully and trying hard to understand.

What are the effects of workplace empathy?

Deriving results from a study conducted by Catalyst (a nonprofit organization that advocates better workplaces for women) Forbes reported in 2021 that empathy improved the following critical workplace elements: 

-Engagement. 76 percent of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged, compared with only 32 percent who experienced less empathy.

-Retention. 57 percent of white women and 62 percent of women of color said they were unlikely to think of leaving their companies when they felt their life circumstances were respected and valued by their companies. Women who didn’t feel that way were much likely to consider leaving.

-Inclusivity. 50 percent of people with empathetic leaders reported their workplace was inclusive, compared with only 17 percent of those with less empathetic leadership.

-Work-life balance. When people felt their leaders were more empathetic, 86 percent reported they are able to navigate the demands of their work and life—successfully juggling their personal, family and work obligations. This is compared with 60 percent of those who perceived less empathy.

Recent reporting from Time Magazine expresses a differing opinion. In an article from July 2022 entitled, “Companies Are Embracing Empathy to Keep Employees Happy. It’s Not That Easy,” Time reporter Anne Helen Petersen has this tart take: “Companies know they must start thinking seriously about addressing their empathy deficit or risk losing workers to companies that are. Still, I’ve also heard from workers who think it’s all nonsense: the latest in a long string of corporate attempts to distract from toxic or exploitative company culture, yet another scenario in which employers implore workers to be honest and vulnerable about their needs, then implicitly or explicitly punish them for it.” Petersen goes on to say, “At best, [workplace empathy] is expanded sympathy; at worst, it’s trying to force connections between wildly different lived experiences (see especially: white people attempting to empathize with the experience of systemic racism).”

So, is workplace empathy effective or not?

Forbes says study results show that workplace empathy is an objectively good practice. In fact, Forbes asserts that workplace empathy is, “probably the single biggest management skill needed in today’s workplace.” On the other hand, at least one business reporter says workplace empathy is simply a ploy to conceal toxicity and exploitation, placing it alongside “leveraging,” “synergy,” and “thoughtspace” as just another meaningless corporate buzzword.

As with many topics, the truth is probably somewhere between the extremes. Making empathy a mandatory corporate policy is unlikely to yield long-term positive results. However, true empathy consists simply of listening carefully and understanding to the best of one’s ability. If one practices empathy diligently, it will smooth the way in any interpersonal situation—in friendships, family relations, and at work.








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