Empathy Is a Superpower in the Workplace — Here’s How to Use It Right

Even Tim Cook agrees.

Courtesy of Marish / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Marish / Shutterstock

Clear-headed leadership. Dedicated employees. A strong company culture. These are undeniable attributes of a thriving workplace. So is another factor: empathy. While soft skills are often considered less important than efficiency or professionalism to a company’s success, that common misconception can be detrimental to company culture, where being able to understand and have compassion for other people’s emotions is integral to working efficiently together and keeping up workplace morale. In fact, over 80% of CEOs in a recent survey named empathy as a key to corporate success. Even Tim Cook understands the importance of this value, stating in his commencement address to the MIT Class of 2017 that the young graduates should be wary of people who try to keep empathy out of the workplace.

With that in mind, here are four expert-backed tips for integrating more empathy into your company culture.

Listen to the quiet majority. “Oftentimes, the loudest voices in our culture are not the kindest — think playground bullies and cable news pundits,” Jamil Zaki Ph.D., professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of the recent book The War for Kindness, tells Thrive. Therefore, when these loud perspectives take up most of the air in a room, it’s easy to believe that they are in line with the majority, and thus feel compelled to follow their lead. Zaki believes that in order to combat this phenomenon, leaders must make space to give quieter voices a chance to be heard, whether in meetings or beyond. “By creating a culture of psychological safety, you give kindness a chance to flourish,” he says.

Establish company norms. Leaders might also be able to foster empathy in the workplace by publicly naming it as an important value held by the organization, University of Pittsburgh psychology professor Karina Schumann Ph.D., suggests to Thrive. She suggests incorporating the value of empathy into your company’s mission statement, your training practices, or your professional development meetings, if not all of the above. Thrive’s core value of  compassionate directness encourages empathy while raising opportunities to course correct.

Empower kind leaders. Every organization has what Zaki calls “kindness leaders” — people who tend to be generous, connected to others, and well-regarded by their co-workers. Even though they may not be the most powerful or visible colleagues, “they can be the ‘glue people’ who hold an organization together,” Zaki tells Thrive. If you want to foster a more empathetic workplace, try supporting and empowering these “kindness leaders,” and see how their positive attitudes lead to greater cultural change.

Lead by example. Finally, leaders might be able to foster empathy in the workplace by modeling it in their own behavior, Schumann tells Thrive. For example, they can practice empathic listening when interacting with their employees, which Schumann says involves avoiding interruptions and “seeking to truly understand their employee’s feelings and perspective.” When leaders model empathetic behavior, they set the tone for the work environment — and their employees will likely follow suit.

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