Empathy In The Workplace

It is undoubted that the events of the past few years have changed the world and work culture as we know it.

Yet, it is still important to remember one of the major lessons that we, as a society, have learned – empathy. According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, the use of empathy in publications has trended upward consistently since 1950 with an all-time high recorded in 2019. With the pandemic, recent social justice, and DEI movements, it is likely that those statistics will show empathy usage increasing far more. 

While the pandemic distanced us physically, it gave us a new feeling of comradery as well. In a way, the pandemic brought us together: we were faced with a common “enemy” that largely and indiscriminately affected all of us. It was easy to empathize with one another knowing that the challenges others faced, we faced as well. Empathy at its core answers the question of why any of us should care about anything that affects others. In the workplace, it is a skill that is increasingly valuable as workplaces become more diverse.

If empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, it must be rooted in respect for others and the ability to see beyond oneself. 

If we do not regard others, then it will be impossible to be empathetic toward them. One of the advantages of practicing empathy in the workplace is that it builds authentic connections and strengthens workplace relationships. Full-time employees spend a third of the day in a work environment; therefore, it is imperative to have meaningful experiences and relationships at work or risk engaging in perpetual meaningless interactions. How many people want to look back and realize they wasted close to a third of their lives? 

Empathy and Vulnerability

A lot of people shy away from opening themselves up and being vulnerable within the workplace; this may be because of the perceived, and sometimes apparent, effects that vulnerability has on performance evaluations and promotions. There is a myth that when we are vulnerable in the workplace, we are weak and fragile, unable to handle the demands of greater responsibility. Therefore, people find the need to be guarded, often portraying abrasive, combative, know-more-than-you attitudes. 

Vulnerability, however, is what underlines authenticity and meaningful connections among people in the workplace. 

If our work experience is going to be profound and enriching, then we must be consciously open. This does not mean that we must engage in tell-all sessions or carelessly offend others in the name of our own vulnerability. It means we must unmask ourselves and let our guard down with one another. Sometimes, as we engage in real conversations, we may offend others, but we must be conscious to learn and relearn. Vulnerability and empathy are allies. However, vulnerability will only flourish where there is empathy. Empathy must disarm judgment so that vulnerability blossoms.

When there is a culture of empathy, of genuine respect and connection, people bring their authentic selves to work. When people know that their differences will be respected and acknowledged, it frees them up to risk more. When we are not anxious about living up to a standardized human experience within the workplace, when we can embrace our own uniqueness, it frees up that mental space for excitement, increased engagement, and feelings of pleasure. These emotional states often foster creativity and ingenuity leading to increased productivity within the workplace.

Take Action

There are several recommendations but one way that we can consciously practice empathy is by being vulnerable. Allow yourself to be more genuine with your colleagues and clients: acknowledge great days and bad days, joys and frustrations, expertise, and even a lack of understanding. The key is authenticity; therefore, grow into it. Do not force it. Allow the situation to dictate what you share. Share only as much as you are comfortable. Watch for how it is received and adapt when needed. Real relationships are not one-size-fits-all. It may feel unnatural, and that is okay. As you risk and expose yourself emotionally, it builds resilience to be comfortable while being vulnerable. If you do this often, it helps train you to be receptive of others who are being vulnerable with you. That is empathy!