Insights & Ideas

The importance of workplace empathy

When you feel powerless or disheartened, try empathy.

Lately, we’ve been living in a supercharged atmosphere. It’s easy to feel powerless against the divisiveness swirling all around us. But, we all have a tool we can use to make things better: empathy. One way to get started is focusing on empathy in an environment you’re in every day: your work culture.

Empathy: There’s more to it than you think

“Empathy” has been a business buzzword for several years. For good reason: empathy fosters collaboration, which leads to increased productivity and innovation, which leads to competitive advantage. However, the concept of empathy is often slightly misunderstood. Most people think of empathy as seeing things from other people’s perspectives or “walking in their shoes.” But, the real power in empathy is understanding someone’s pain AND taking action to help alleviate their concerns.

How to lead with empathy at work

Whether you’re a manager (or a leader of any kind), here are 10 actions you can do to lead with empathy in your (virtual or real) workplace:

For your employees or coworkers:

  1. Be a good listener: Empathy rule #1 is all about listening. Give people your undivided attention. Don’t just listen to respond, listen for understanding.
  2. Be curious: Take a proactive interest in people. Ask a lot of questions and take the answers seriously. Notice someone struggling? Find out why and how you can help.
  3. Take action: Demonstrate that you can take action based on what you learn—even if that means changes to office culture, working practices, or your own behavior.
  4. Be flexible: Let people know that, while there may be policies or cultural norms, there’s always room to improve and evolve. Nothing is set in stone.
  5. Talk about empathy: It might seem simple but talking about empathy regularly—making sure everyone understands it—will make your workplace more empathetic.

For yourself:

  1. Model vulnerability: Demonstrate that everyone needs empathy by letting others know when you need help, advice, or a bit of leeway. Setting an example makes others feel comfortable coming to you when they need help.
  2. Be aware of your own biases: We all have insecurities and filters. Taking time to identify your default reactions will help you get past defensiveness during hard conversations—freeing you to listen and collaborate.
  3. Look for input, not validation: Seek out people who challenge your opinions and ideas. Make it clear you appreciate respectful discussions that make your work or workplace better.
  4. Expand your experience: The more varied your experiences, the easier it is to understand other people’s lives. So, put yourself in unfamiliar territory—from new projects at work to cultural experiences in your community.
  5. Have confidence in your employees/coworkers: Start with the assumption that your coworkers are honest, trustworthy, and skilled at their work. If issues arise—don’t jump to conclusions before you know the context.

While encouraging empathy in your workplace won’t solve all the world’s ills, it will make a big difference to your employees and coworkers—and you.

About Salo

Salo matches senior finance, accounting, and HR professionals with organizations that need their expertise. Need help building empathetic leaders and work cultures? Contact us to learn how our HR pros help organizations of all sizes do just that.

Lindsay Schneider
Lindsay Schneider

Lindsay Schneider

Managing Director, Minneapolis Finance

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