We have an empathy deficit. Decades of research suggest Americans have become less concerned about others and less willing to understand different perspectives. Many think empathy is simply not worth the effort. This hurts us personally and professionally. When workplace relationships suffer, so does an organization’s success.
Here’s the good news: Evidence for empathy in the workplace is growing, and leaders from nearly every field are taking note. Empathy is a skill we can build, just like a muscle. When we exercise it, we grow stronger. Focusing our attention on the people around us strengthens our ability to learn, communicate, and get results.
Let’s get specific. Here’s why empathy in the workplace matters:
1) Empathy is at the core of your mission.
It’s the guiding force behind organizations working to help people. Without empathy, many services that prevent violence, disease, and poverty might fail to exist at all. The ability to understand others' experiences is also vital for businesses committed to delivering high-quality products that meet customers' needs and advance their quality of life. So if empathy is not a priority in service delivery and evaluation, then there might be a disconnect between an organization’s mission and its practices.
2) Empathy boosts productivity.
Human connection is a powerful source of meaning and motivation. We work harder when we see that our work benefits people. Researchers have tested this idea using simple interventions. A study of university fundraisers found that those who were asked to read brief stories about how donations have helped scholarship students doubled the number of donations they obtained. People in completely different fields—like lifeguards and agricultural workers—have also showed increased productivity after reading stories about how their work helps people. Even seeing the faces of people we serve can improve performance. Radiologists interpret test results with greater detail when photographs of patients are included in their case files, and cooks make tastier food when they can see their customers.
3) Empathy fuels effective collaboration.
Thanks to Google’s decision to share its internal research, we have a better understanding of what makes a team excel: empathy. The tech company studied hundreds of its teams as part of a research initiative called Project Aristotle. The most successful groups shared these two characteristics:
People were skilled at reading emotions based on nonverbal cues. If a team member appeared uneasy with a decision, it was likely noticed and discussed. If someone appeared down, others showed concern and support. Those conversations are not always easy, but they’re important. They allow us to be authentic and engaged.
- Each person spent roughly the same amount of time speaking during conversations. This practice reflects a shared belief that everyone has something valuable to contribute. And when everyone shares their knowledge and ideas, the group’s collective intelligence grows. That leads to better results.
4) Empathy improves cultural competence.
The ability to understand and work effectively with people of different cultures is not an endpoint, but a process involving relationships rooted in empathy, curiosity, and respect. We can elicit cultural competence in others both by encouraging empathy and by modeling it. Empathy invites empathy in return. For example, a randomized trial involving conversations about discrimination against transgender people documented a successful method for discussing sensitive topics. Canvassers first asked people to talk about a time when they were judged for being different. The brief interactions started with empathetic listening and an interest in finding common ground, and they resulted in changed hearts and minds. Another study found that white people who were encouraged to consider the perspectives of black men in photos or videos had more positive interracial interactions afterward.
5) Empathy elevates customer satisfaction.
Research suggests human interaction is the primary way people judge service quality, and these interactions shape an organization’s reputation. When we approach our work with a belief that each customer deserves our focused attention and kindness, it shows. It builds trust and loyalty. Taking time to observe, ask questions, and respond thoughtfully is key to meeting the needs of the people we serve.
6) Empathy builds leadership.
People who are skilled at understanding others’ feelings and situations are more likely to be viewed as effective leaders. In fact, a study by MRG found that empathy was the single strongest predictor of ethical leadership. Empathetic leaders motivate teams to do their best work. They listen. They acknowledge others’ needs and contributions. They cultivate a shared vision and loyalty as a direct result of their investment in their team.
7) Empathy is a competitive advantage.
Technology is continuing to change the way we do business and interact with each other. Organizations are automating processes and using new tech-based tools. But not all innovation is created equal. Products fail when they don’t meet the needs of people. Involving users in each step of the design process (human-centered design) helps ensure new products are useful in real-world settings. And while the influence of technology is growing, our need for human connection is unchanging. So when the people representing your organization show humanity and kindness, now more than ever, it stands out.
Please share your thoughts below and share this information with colleagues. Let's #ActivateEmpathy.
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