Business Miscellaneous

8 Critical Steps to Creating Empathy in the Workplace

Are you showing your employees enough support?

Given that one-in-three workers would leave their companies for a more compassionate environment, there’s major incentive for companies to emphasize empathy skills sooner rather than later.

For those of us working in a support role, our effectiveness ultimately boils down to how well we listen and connect to our fellow employees. The better we do our jobs, the more equipped our coworkers are to do theirs.

The challenge? Empathy is learned on an individual level. It doesn’t come from an employee handbook, nor does it trickle down from management.

But when you take the personal responsibility to better understand your coworkers, your company ultimately reaps the rewards.

Why Empathy in the Workplace Matters

Empathy represents the ability to understand someone else’s thoughts and feelings. In other words: compassion. Listening to your coworkers and taking their concerns into consideration.

The importance of empathy in business is rooted in data. According to Businessolver’s 2017 Workplace Empathy Monitor report, empathy has a direct impact on employee productivity, loyalty, and engagement. Here are some particularly striking data points from the report:

  • 77% of workers would be willing to work more hours for a more empathetic workplace; meanwhile, 60% would actually accept a slashed salary for the same.
  • 92% of HR professionals note that a compassionate workplace is a major factor for employee retention.
  • 80% of millennials noted that they would leave their current job if their office became less empathetic. 66% of Baby Boomers also shared this sentiment.

Being empathetic in the workplace provides meaningful, concrete returns. Connecting coworkers helps sustain a thriving company that’s built for the long term.

Why Companies Struggle with Empathy

If these skills are so important, why do less than half of workers rate their workplaces as empathetic?

Adopting a more compassionate tone company-wide isn’t simple. Empathy requires individuals to take the initiative to get closer to their coworkers. That initiative doesn’t come out of thin air: a compassionate workplace requires a conscious, organization-wide effort.

Learning empathy can be draining, both emotionally and mentally. Getting caught up in the problems and struggles of your coworkers means investing yourself personally into their lives. You may also end up seeing firsthand the shortcomings of your company, its leadership and individual employees, all of which can take a toll on you.

Plus, empathy is difficult to measure. Sure, you can assess your employees’ morale through surveys and one-on-ones, but the direct impact of empathy on your bottom line is tricky to track.

Finally, empathic employees do have the potential to be taken advantage of by their coworkers in terms of time and expectations. In your effort to make yourself more available, some might try to dump more and more of their problems on your plate. While empathetic coworkers aren’t necessarily weak by any means, setting limits is crucial to a more compassionate work environment.

Are these challenges an excuse to forget about empathy in the workplace, though? Absolutely not. With more workers than ever running away from companies that lack empathy, the need for more compassionate individuals in any given office is clear.

Making Empathy Work. Literally

The importance of empathy in business cannot be overstated. In fact, one common thread between the best places to work is a culture of compassion and understanding.

On the surface, getting more invested in your coworkers may seem fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, many of the most important aspects of empathy in the workplace are either overlooked or misunderstood. That’s why we’ve broken down the following eight skills and cornerstones of improving relationships with your coworkers.

1. Rethink How You Listen

When your coworkers come to you with questions and concerns, how well are you listening?

Here’s some food for thought: most employees don’t actually listen to what their colleagues have to say. Claiming to be a “good listener” simply isn’t enough in a world where 30% of employees feel their opinions don’t matter.

Actively listening to your coworkers requires effort, plain and simple. As a support-based employee, each email, ticket or face-to-face conversation with your colleagues deserves your full attention. Understand that your time spent in the workplace is just as valuable as theirs is and better listening means solving their problems in a timely manner.

Assuming that the majority of employees feel they lack the proper resources to work effectively, those in support roles are the ones to take up the reins and figure out what their coworkers need to be successful.

For example, a ticketing system that ensures that your coworkers’ issues get directed to the proper people is a solid start. Detailed questionnaires and surveys likewise take the legwork out of figuring out your colleagues’ issues and provide you with actionable know-how before initiating a full-blown conversation.

Another vital aspect of being a better listener is making yourself as available as possible. From emails to Slack and beyond, you should advertise that you’re open to questions and concerns and won’t shy away from them.

As an added bonus, listening carefully to your coworkers can clue you in toward how you can help out your office in the future.

Perhaps you have an influx of questions about a new software or policy that seems to be tripping up your colleagues. The source of their frustration may cause you to rethink how you implement a new launch or policy next time, illustrating how individual empathy in the workplace can be a net positive for your company at large.

2. Master the Art of Asking Questions

Exercising empathy for coworkers means not only being a good listener but also asking the right questions to get to the root of your colleagues’ problems.

When you ask thoughtful questions of your coworkers, you’re basically saying, “Okay, I hear you. What can I do to help? How are we going to take care of this?”

Questions asked of your employees should be specific rather than a blanket, one-size-fits-all response. Workers deserve to have their concerns heard and understood.

That said, sometimes the wants of our workers aren’t always clear. In the case that someone sends you a vague or otherwise confusing query, here’s a quick script you can use to help get to the core of their problem ASAP:

Hi [Name],

Thanks so much for reaching out. Based on your last message, I just wanted to quickly clarify your issue so we can get it sorted as soon as possible. Any additional details you could provide about [problem] would be greatly appreciated.

3. Walk in Your Coworkers’ Shoes

To paraphrase the classic quote from To Kill a Mockingbird, you never really get to know a person until you walk around in their shoes. In the workplace, this means approaching your coworkers’ concerns with an open mind.

Don’t forget the roles and responsibilities in your office that are worlds away from your own. Unless you’ve shadowed your coworkers or have worked in their position, you may have little to no grasp on what their day-to-day duties look like in action. The average week for someone in the marketing or accounting department may very well look like night and day versus IT or HR.

Think that you have a lot on your plate? Your coworkers probably feel the same way. Burnout impacts 40% of employees regardless of department. If a coworker sounds irritated or otherwise annoyed while communicating with you, just remember the last time that you had a rough day.

In the case that someone is particularly upset or frustrated, the following email script can help diffuse the situation:

Hi [Name],

I just wanted to let you know that I understand your frustration and want to do everything in my power to help. If it’d be more convenient for you, we could also discuss this in-person or over-the-phone to get the ball rolling. The more I know about [problem], the quicker we can get it sorted. Thanks!

4. Avoid Making Assumptions

On a related note, give your coworkers the benefit of the doubt before passing judgment on their behavior in the office.

Let’s say a new hire is having trouble adhering to a particular policy. You could assume that they’re being negligent or otherwise aloof, but chances are they’re simply adjusting to a new way of thinking. Both adopting and breaking away from workplace rituals takes time and you should respect that.

This goes without saying, but don’t automatically assume the worst of people. Maybe that coworker who’s become increasingly needy is having a tough time at home. Perhaps the person who randomly blew up at you during a support call totaled their car two days ago.

Workplace stress comes in all shapes and sizes. Practicing patience with your coworkers is key to demonstrating empathy in the workplace.

5. Learn How to Prioritize Problems

When it comes to giving your coworkers a hand, not all problems are created equal.

Again, empathy requires you truly listen to your employees and their concerns. Taking a blanket “first come, first served” approach to problem-solving isn’t exactly compassionate or personal.

For example, addressing a coworker who’s dealing with malfunctioning equipment or a potential security breach is more pressing than someone who has a program that occasionally runs slowly. Taking care of the most urgent matters first shows that you understand the gravity of your coworkers’ situations as you offer a hand.

6. Don’t Keep Your Coworkers at Arm’s Length

According to TINYpulse, coworkers are the number one aspect of workplaces that drive employees to like their jobs.

Supporting your coworkers means more than responding to emails and service requests. Positive workplace relationships make empathy much easier as you get to know your coworkers as people rather than email addresses or departments.

Although you don’t need to be best friends with everyone in the office, taking some interest in your coworkers beyond a professional capacity is a major plus.

Chat it up in the breakroom from time to time. Take those team-building exercises seriously. Employees are much more likely to work smoothly with a friendly face versus someone that’s cold or standoffish.

7. Remember That People Have Feelings

When we’re laser-focused on profits or productivity, it’s easy to lose sight of how your coworkers feel.

In a cutthroat, corporate environment, empathy can easily fall to the wayside. Only 40% of workers feel that somebody at work seems to care about them as a person. Meanwhile, 31% of employees feel that those in leadership positions value profits over people.

Seriously, though: don’t forget that your coworkers are people, too. Criticism and condescending comments shouldn’t be your go-to reaction when working with even the most difficult coworkers. Despite our frustrations and faults, we’re all in this together.

8. Accept That Empathy Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Your quest for a more empathetic workplace is a marathon, not a sprint.

Learning how to develop empathy skills such as patience, keen listening, and asking thoughtful questions takes time. The more you interact and become comfortable with your team, the easier it becomes to show them compassion.

Don’t let one bad experience or toxic coworker wreck your otherwise positive outlook, either. Consistently showing up and responding to coworkers’ concerns will ultimately lead to empathy, influence and respect. Once you’ve kindled positive relationships with your coworkers, everyone else in the office will be more likely to return the favor.

The end result? A connected, compassionate workplace.

Are You Showing Your Coworkers the Support They Deserve?

Taking the time and energy to become more empathetic is an ongoing, active process. From building trust with your colleagues to improving the quality of your own work, HR, IT, and other personnel who provide support to employees should exercise empathy in an effort to make their company a better place.

And while empathy in the workplace might not seem like a top priority, compassionate coworkers have a massive influence on productivity and employee engagement alike. Workers thrive when they feel that their voices and concerns are heard. This begs the question: are you supporting your coworkers beyond the bare minimum?

 This article was originally published on the Spoke Blog.

About the author


Brent Barnhart