HR Leads Business

Feb 12, 2019 | Ginny Engholm

Why Empathy Matters for Your Corporate Culture

Empathy is on the decline in our society. Research shows empathy declining in groups across society from health care workers to college students. One study revealed that college students’ levels of empathy dropped 40 percent in 10 years. 

Technology has contributed significantly to these declines, says Rob Volpe, CEO of the consumer insights and strategy firm Ignite 360. “We maintain our kind of primary contacts, our immediate family and close friends, but your neighbors, the people at the café, the sort of secondary folks in your community, those are the people that we are not engaging with because we have our noses down in our phones,” Volpe points out.

And all of that lack of contact affects our level of empathy, our ability to understand the perspective of others. 

So does declining empathy affect the workplace? In a 2018 State of Workplace Empathy report, 96 percent of respondents rated empathy as important, but 92 percent of employees surveyed also believe empathy remains undervalued at their company.

Andrea Hoban, former head of learning for Robert Half and now chief learning officer at Oji Life Lab, puts it this way: “The future of your organization depends on how empathetic your leaders, and everyone in the rank and file of your company, are.”

Here’s why empathy is essential for your company’s long-term success.

Empathy Is About Relationships

At its core, empathy is about the relationship between you and another person. “Cognitive empathy is seeing somebody else's point of view, whereas affective empathy is actually feeling what they're feeling,” explains Volpe.

The ability to understand someone else’s point of view is essential for cooperative relationships. “Cognitive empathy helps teams engage with each other and allows them to collaborate and communicate effectively with each other,” Volpe says.

But we often think of empathy as solely about the other person’s emotions. Hoban points out, though, that empathy also helps people recognize and understand their own emotions and how those emotions affect others. “There are many leaders who are actually quite good at recognizing what other people may be feeling, but they're missing the skill of being able to recognize their own emotions,” says Hoban.

Empathy helps put caring about others into action, she says. “Ultimately, if I can't operate with some sense of empathy, of being aware of how I feel and being aware how others feel, then I limit my capability to make good decisions” she says.

Empathy Makes Better Leaders

The C-suite increasingly views values-based leadership as crucial for success in the modern business climate. But empathy often gets overlooked as a leadership value because it’s seen as too soft or too nice. 
“Some managers are afraid of being taken advantage of,” says Hoban. “People equate empathy with niceness, but it’s not the same thing.”

That fear is based on the concern that by understanding how a person is feeling and being able to empathize with their position, it somehow takes away personal agency to make tough decisions, she says. 

Volpe points out that empathic leaders must still be strategic. They still have to take into account a variety of factors and not just the employee’s perspective. “But even when you are making the tough decision, when you are able to bring empathy into that conversation and approach things empathetically you're going to reach a more satisfactory conclusion because people are going to feel heard,” he says. “Employees are going to feel like, ‘They get me. They may not agree with me, they may not agree with what I want, but at least I know that they heard me.’”

This creates a stronger connection between leaders and workers within an organization and enables a much more productive workplace, he says.

Empathy Fosters Collaboration and Teamwork

Our workplaces increasingly rely on team-based approaches to work, but problems navigating working with team members is one of the top issues workers face. 

Empathy helps team members collaborate and work more effectively, says Hoban. “By extending my awareness into how I'm feeling and also identifying what others may be feeling, there's a greater possibility for us to collaborate, to really be able to see your point of view and how it contributes to the idea we're trying to build,” she says. “It’s being alive to other people in a very human way that allows for that kind of work to build and grow and be innovative.” 

For remote workers who have to work collaboratively without the benefit of face-face interactions, the ability to view the workplace landscape from their coworkers’ perspective can be even greater. “In the case of a remote worker, there is actually a need to rely on empathy even more to be productive,” Hoban says. “I need to be more active in discerning how are my colleagues feeling. Are there frustrations brewing that I don't know about?”

It can be as simple as asking questions that help you reframe your narrative around interactions with your colleagues, Hoban says. “It’s recognizing that you’re creating a narrative that’s focused on you -- if they were more organized, my life would be so much easier -- instead of seeing things from their point of view,” she points out. Maybe they have factors that are making it more difficult to organize their task and having empathy for them could allow you to think of ways to improve your team’s communication and productivity, she says.