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Empathy Is An Often Misunderstood Value — Here’s Why

Although soft skills often go undervalued in the workplace, empathy and other emotionally intelligent behaviors can create a more positive, productive work environment.

Benjamin Torode/Getty Images
Benjamin Torode/Getty Images

When I was a sophomore in college, I landed what felt like the opportunity of a lifetime — a summer internship at a travel magazine in Milan, Italy. To prepare for my new job, my university required me to take a personality and skills assessment. After nearly two years worth of journalism and marketing courses, I thought I had a grasp on my traits and talents. I considered myself a strong communicator, inquisitive, and creative. Much to my surprise, my test results offered insight I hadn’t considered — apparently I was highly empathetic, too.

At first, I was concerned. How could empathy help me in a professional setting? Would a soft skill serve me as well as a more technical skill or something learned in the classroom? I spent weeks questioning myself and my abilities. It wasn’t until I returned from Italy and had time to reflect on my experience that I realized how much empathy had and would continue to help me in the workplace and across all roles in my life.

Sometimes it can be difficult to understand the value of empathy because it isn’t always clear cut or celebrated. Empathy also isn’t accounted for in performance reviews, and you’d likely be hard-pressed to find a boss who comes to your desk and says, “Wow, you’re such a great empathizer!” Our bosses should be saying this though, because empathy can not only contribute to a positive workplace culture, but it also can help to create strong, emotionally intelligent leaders.

An empathetic employee is someone who can understand and connect with the emotions of their coworkers, and apply that awareness to their interactions and leadership style. An empathetic employee doesn’t simply feel for another person — he or she feels with that person, and takes a moment to see the world through that person’s eyes. While this might not seem as important as other managerial skills, research has shown that understanding what others are feeling is positively related to job performance. The reasons behind the correlation between empathy and job effectiveness are still somewhat unclear, but researchers believe it has much to do with the fact that empathetic employees can effectively build relationships, which is an important asset across professions.

Additionally, empathy can simply make people feel understood in the workplace. The Washington Post reports that “empathetic behavior shows people they are being heard and therefore appreciated, which may boost engagement, morale, retention and productivity. It fills an innate emotional need that is important to develop in the work environment as it is in any other area of life.” Showing others, with compassionate directness, that you genuinely care about their work and aspirations — and taking the time to actively listen to them — can lead to a mutual sense of trust and understanding. That way, when a problem arises or a deadline can’t be met, the situation can be addressed with honest and productive conversation and action.

The ability to empathize will only become more important in the workplace. As artificial intelligence continues to penetrate the job market, our uniquely human capacity to recognize and interpret the feelings of others will set us apart from machine learning technology that could theoretically possess the same skills we do. Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, an AI expert, writer, and venture capitalist, has said that the jobs of the future will still require humans — empathetic humans, that is. By and large, people won’t want to communicate or work closely with robot counterparts. “[People] don’t want to listen to robots making speeches, leading the company, giving pep talks or earning our trust,” Lee says. “They don’t want robots to be teachers and nurses. We will end up with the inevitable outcome that, although large numbers of routine jobs will be eliminated, large numbers of empathetic jobs will be created.”

Feeling and exuding empathy isn’t always easy, though. It is natural for some more than others, and as Thrive Global Founder and CEO Arianna Huffington has written, technology can present challenges in the way of emotional connection. Huffington notes that our devices and the growing need to always be staring at them can actually make us less empathetic. Moreover, being hyper-connected on our devices and feeling as though we must always be working can eventually lead to burnout. It is a dangerous cycle, yet it is one that can be avoided.

Research has shown that empathy can be analyzed and learned. Looking up to an empathetic role model — a role model who is empathetic toward this learning process itself — and debriefing about empathetic behavior has shown to be especially helpful. As empathy becomes more prioritized in the workplace, training that focuses on emotional intelligence will become more commonplace, too. Perhaps most importantly, we should take time to put our devices away and engage in meaningful face-to-face interactions. It is a great way to practice active listening and empathy, and something we should make time for every single day.

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