Empathy: A skill workplaces are missing- and one they absolutely need to excel

It was a rainy day at my office in Dhaka, Bangladesh, when just as I was about to leave work, I noticed my boss scribbling away on a piece of paper, too agitated for someone who was nearing the end of a hectic work day. I neared to her and asked her what it was and she tells me, “I am Googling how to become more empathetic and noting down whatever strikes out to me!”
 
 I was lost.

Noticing my quizzical expression, she says exasperatedly, “Remember that workshop I went to today? One of the key speakers there said empathy is increasingly becoming the driving force of workplaces.”
 
 “I need to learn how to be more empathetic,” she finishes, and goes back to gazing into an article titled 10 ways you can be more empathetic at your workplace.

In order to know how you can indeed be more empathetic at your work, a good place to start would be to know the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Sympathy is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, where you wish the person in question were happier or better off. The dictionary meaning of sympathy is: Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. It’s safe to say then, that sympathy is a reaction to the sufferings of others.

Empathy is the ability to identify and vicariously experience the feelings and thoughts of others before coming to an informed decision.

Empathy, on the other hand, goes a step further. In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. This is quite relevant because empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, or feel into what that person is feeling. You must be able to see things from another person’s perspectives, or step into their shoes as is often mentioned in the timeworn definition of empathy. However, in order to share into someone else’s perspective, you must do more than merely put yourself in his position. You must imagine yourself as him, but even more importantly, imagine yourself as him in the particular predicament in which he finds himself. Empathy, therefore, is the ability to identify and vicariously experience the feelings and thoughts of others before coming to an informed decision. It means that you’re aware of their feelings and how it impacts their perception. What it does not mean: Empathy does not mean you have to agree with how people see things; rather, being empathetic means that you’re willing and able to appreciate what the other person is going through.

Empathy: Who gives a crap?

Why should you care about empathy when the very concept of it seemingly contradicts the modern concept of a traditional workplace which is competitive and cutthroat, with employees climbing over each other to reach the top? The reality is that for business leaders to experience success, they need to not just see or hear the activity around them, but also relate to the people they serve. More importantly, they need to make people relate to them. In other words, you need to be able to make people resonate with you.

Empathy is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox.

Simon Sinek, author of Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, says that empathy is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox. According to him, putting the well-being of others first has a multiplying and reciprocal effect in workplace relationships. Not only does this give managers the capacity to collectively bring in employees in a shared vision, it also helps harness their creativity to achieve their full potential.

1) Being empathetic helps you achieve your goals better.
 
 Everyone, at some point, needs to rely on their relationships and established personal and professional connections to achieve positive results that push us toward our goals. Truly successful people do not operate alone. True empathy combines understanding both the emotional and the logical rationale that goes behind people’s decisions.

2) Empathy helps increase creativity and teamwork.

Empathy helps build trust. Without trust, many employees tend to guard their emotions and hold back on their ideas and participation because they feel their ideas are not valued. When employees feel their managers will take their feelings into account and understand/respect their perspectives, they are more likely to trust that their managers want them to succeed. The effect of this is threefold: It can strengthen working relationships, increase teamwork and improve productivity.

3) Empathy helps solve tricky workplace conflicts better.
 
Simply put, empathy helps us diffuse escalating workplace conflicts or irate customers in a way that’s both fast and efficient.

Cracking the code

Sort of.

By now, it should come as no surprise that success in the workplace is not just dependent on a workforce with a higher than average IQ, but a cumulative power of IQ and EQ.

Empathetic leaders who are able to adapt and build on the strengths of those around them create a more supportive workplace where individuals, instead of working singularly for their own purposes, become a team working collaboratively for a joint goal.

So how can you be more empathetic, especially when it is something that doesn’t come naturally to you?

  1. Stop speaking and start listening.
     
    Most of us have an innate desire to speak, even when we’re not spoken to. We listen to reply, instead of listening to just listen, or even understand. Don’t listen to reply; listen to understand. When you actively listen to what people say to you, you will find that people warm up to you more. This is where solid working relationships and friendships begin.

2. Don’t be an ass and respect people’s views.
 
I think it goes without saying that in this world, it’s become relatively easy to be a bully to people who don’t share our views. Crucial lesson: Everyone is not wired the way you are, and they are not obliged to be either. There are reasons why a person is the way they are, why they think the way they do and why they have the particular worldviews that they have. Learn to understand that your way is not the only way to do things. Also learn to accept that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, no matter how different they are from yours. Even if you don’t agree with their views, learn how to unlearn and not be the opinionated ass the world has taught you to be.

3. Give your time.
 
In our increasingly busy lives, time is the most valuable and underrated gift you can give anyone. When you see a coworker stressed or unhappy, find a good time to talk to them and let them vent in their own way. While you are doing this, remember points #1 and #2.

4. Be observant of your surroundings.
 
Even though this demands a bit of effort on your part, pay attention to what is going on in your surroundings and observe people. Observe the feelings, expressions, and behaviors of those around you. This will help you do numbers 3, 2 and 1.

To develop an efficient workforce, it’s crucial that we learn how to compromise and meet people where they are. Now obviously, it’s frustrating and uncomfortable, especially when you feel like your position makes more sense or offers a better solution. So the trick? Learn to understand, respect and implement another individual’s point of view rather than force your own. 
 
 What are some ways you think we can be more empathetic?

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