When it comes to success at work, we often think in individual terms. We try to distinguish ourselves, strive for promotions, and generally do our own personal best, whatever the task may be. We’re aware that the work we do, and how we do it, is a reflection on us not only as employees, but as people.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But it’s not the whole picture. To what extent do we depend on other people? How much do cooperation and collaboration shape our successes? If you were able to better understand your co-workers, wouldn’t that lead to stronger relationships and boost your own prospects, along with your organization’s overall?
That’s where empathy comes in. The ability to acknowledge the feelings and viewpoints of others, and to try to understand them, is a critical skill. And research shows that not only does empathy have wide-ranging benefits for ourselves and others, it’s something we can get better at with practice.
Improving your performance by being more empathic isn’t opportunistic. Empathy lifts everyone — there are no losers when people challenge themselves to see a situation through another’s eyes. As you build your empathy muscles, you’ll be more successful and more fulfilled. You’ll also be better at navigating conflicts, disagreements, and misunderstandings when you’re able to step outside yourself and consider the feelings and viewpoints of those around you.
Subhed: Welcome to the Thrive Guide to Empathy
Thrive Global is a behavior change platform focused on lowering stress and increasing well-being and productivity. The company, founded by Arianna Huffington, creates lasting change in people’s lives by giving them sustainable, science-backed solutions to enhance their performance and overall well-being.
This Thrive Guide will show you exactly how empathizing with others can enrich your relationships, help you navigate conflicts and make you more effective.
While you might value empathy in other areas of your life — with family, friends, strangers and communities in need — maybe it’s not so obvious why empathy has a place at work. In our always-on, hyperconnected workplaces, where we increasingly interact with people electronically — through apps and screens, or on crackly, awkward conference calls — seeing others as full human beings becomes even more difficult. The incredible technology that has brought us closer together in so many ways has also put a new kind of distance between us.
That’s where our Thrive Global Microsteps come in. These simple, science-backed changes you can start incorporating into your life today will help you identify moments and opportunities where empathy can both improve your performance and help build a more compassionate and collaborative culture.
We’ll introduce you to the New Role Models who prove that empathy is essential to success and meaningful connection, in every industry. For example, Microsoft’s Chief Experience Officer Julie Larson-Green told Thrive she draws energy and inspiration from spending time with others. Essence editor-in-chief Vanessa K. DeLuca told Thrive about the book she read at age 11 that changed her life and continues to inform her worldview. And MSNBC anchor Ayman Mohyeldin told Thrive that he has “developed an acutely painful ability to empathize with people, for good or bad.”
In our Tech to Thrive section, we’ve curated the best technology that can help you understand the perspectives, feelings, and struggles of others.
And since empathy is especially important for those in positions of power, our Managerial Take-aways section offers advice for managers who want to do better. When you make the effort to think about “what it’s like to sit on the other side of the desk”, you’ll be a more effective leader and build trust and morale among your direct reports.
By the end of this guide, you’ll have the tools and practical advice you need to live and work with more empathy, with all the benefits it brings.
Subhed: We’re Living In a Golden Age of Empathy Studies
In his 2009 book The Age of Empathy, Dutch psychologist and primatologist Frans de Waal writes that “until recently, empathy was not taken seriously by science. Even with regards to our own species, it was considered an absurd, laughable topic.”
But the recent explosion in empathy studies has shown just how central empathy is to our ability to thrive — for countries, companies and individuals alike. As much as we value and celebrate competition, researchers in every field acknowledge that our ability to cooperate, collaborate and understand one another allows us not only to survive but to flourish. Even in economics: as de Waal notes, the Scottish economist and father of capitalism Adam Smith knew that “if you build a system completely on competitive principles it would not work very well.”
More and more, we understand that empathy isn’t just people being nice to each other — it’s a pillar of strong societies. In 2016, a global study of adults in 63 countries not only produced a ranking of the world’s most empathic countries (led by Ecuador), but showed that countries with higher levels of empathy also had higher levels of subjective well-being, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and self-esteem. As Arianna Huffington writes in Thrive, “Empathy, compassion, and giving—which is simply empathy and compassion in action—are the molecular building blocks of our being. With them we expand and thrive; without them we wither.”
One reason empathy is so powerful is that it’s not just a feeling — it’s a feeling that can lead us to take meaningful action. Psychologist Paul Ekman has identified three kinds of empathy, including “compassionate empathy,” which prompts us to act and help others. This kind of empathy is rooted in the knowledge that “we’re all connected,” Ekman says. And it can make the difference between adequate and inadequate responses to crises ranging from hurricane response to global warming, according to Daniel Goleman, a bestselling author and journalist.
At work, research shows empathy — as well as its close cousin, forgiveness — have tangible benefits. According to a 2016 study from the London Business School, empathy and forgiveness can help employees improve how they navigate workplace conflicts and misunderstandings. Next time you feel you’ve been wronged by a co-worker — or worry that you’ve wronged or offended someone else — start by thinking about the situation from the other person’s perspective. Only then can you begin to take steps toward understanding and reconciliation, whatever those steps may be. This may sound obvious, but many of us, especially in a high-stress workplace, can have trouble getting beyond a me-centered perspective — with the grudges, grievances and other performance-sapping qualities that can follow.
One group — leaders — can especially benefit from empathy, in part because they’re not particularly good at it. A 2014 Canadian study found that increased power lowered an executive’s ability to be empathic. Similarly, a 2006 study published in Psychological Science found that “power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how other people see, think, and feel.”
But empathy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Research shows it is intertwined with our overall well-being; when you take care of yourself, you’ll be more able to see others’ perspectives. For example, one of the many negative effects of sleep deprivation is a reduction in our ability to feel empathy toward others, according to a study from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
As the American poet and activist Maya Angelou put it, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” Next, we’ll look at how you can take all this newfound knowledge and put it into action.
Subhed: Small, Actionable Steps You Can Take today
Here are three microsteps you can take to strengthen relationships, forge new connections and become a more empathetic person.
1. Ask a colleague about their life outside of work.
It could be small talk in the office kitchen or a quick chat before a meeting. Seemingly insignificant conversations about subjects from family and pets to hobbies and favorite sports teams can help build empathy.
2. Consider the perspective of someone else.
Whether it’s someone you tend to pass by or someone you’ve never quite connected with, thinking about other people and their experiences can help you build new relationships, let go of a grudge, or enlarge your own perspective. It can be as simple as asking yourself, “What might this person be feeling?”
3. Turn a digital exchange into an in-person conversation.
When you get to know your co-workers as people and see their full humanity instead of just names in your inbox, you’ll build empathy—and increase your ability to navigate complex situations.