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The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace

What Does Empathy Mean For the Workplace Culture and the Pandemic?

Last week I blogged about empathy in my “Ethics Sage” blog. Today I address the issue of empathy in the workplace and characteristics of those who possess the moral trait of being empathetic towards another person.

First, let’s look at a basic definition of empathy. Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experience of others. Empathy goes beyond sympathy, which is being able to understand and support others with compassion or sensitivity. Simply stated, empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, be aware of their feelings and understand their needs.

You may have heard the admonition to walk a mile in someone’s else’s shoes, meaning before you judge someone, you must understand their experiences, challenges, thought processes, and so on. The full idiom is: Before you judge a man walk a mile in his shoes. In effect, it is a reminder to practice empathy. 

Empathy is less like a trait and more like a skill and, as such, can be developed over time with practice. The workplace is an ideal place to practice that skill.

Empathetic workplaces tend to enjoy stronger collaboration, less stress, and greater morale, and their employees recover more quickly from difficult moments such as layoffs.

With respect to the workplace, empathy manifests itself by sharing and understanding the emotions of fellow employees. An empathetic person is open to others’ feelings and interacts with them in a constructive manner that builds on trust because of the understanding.

Recent research shows that empathy is positively related to a manager’s job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.

It has been said that the biggest deficit we have in society and in the world right now if the empathy deficit. We need to stand in another person’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. This can simply be a matter of considering their needs in our own decision-making process.

For example, the wearing of a mask during the pandemic is an empathy issue. I believe that if you want to show empathy towards others, wear a mask when appropriate. People who discount how their behavior might affect others – i.e., transmit the virus – are selfish, not empathetic. What’s worse, people who go unvaccinated care only about their own desires not the needs of the population at large.

I believe, to the extent possible, employees should be required to wear masks or at least get tested for the virus frequently. This is the caring thing to do, an element of empathetic behavior.

A key value in the workplace is empathetic leadership. Empathetic leaders can neutralize negative behaviors by leading with empathy. For example, employees who have been rated as poor performers need understanding why that occurs. Empathetic leaders take the time to understand their issues with others in the workplace, especially superiors. Empathetic leaders listen to employees with an open mind.

Managers who value empathy take the opportunity to get to know the people their surrounded with. Seeing things from their perspective to better understand their values and beliefs. Whether it’s customers or employees, it's important they know their opinions and interests matter too. EMPATHY DEFICIT

This is where emotional intelligence (EI) comes into the picture. EI is the ability to understand and handle emotions in yourself and others. The necessary key to building EI is self-awarenessStudies show that people who have higher self-awareness are better leaders.

This means you can detect what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it, to put it simply. It also means being realistic in recognizing the areas you’re good at, plus areas that could use improvement. In turn, this helps you pick up on other people’s emotional tendencies and empathize with them. 

But it’s important to remember that EI isn’t about keeping your emotions bottled up — that will only result in a negative explosive reaction. It’s about learning to identify and mentally process your emotions, while also being able to direct them in an appropriate manner. 

In his seminal book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey is quoted as saying about empathy:

"When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They're either speaking or preparing to speak. They're filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people's lives…”

One of Covey’s habits is "Seek to understand rather than be understood". He explains: "Empathy takes time, and efficiency is for things, not people. When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air”. The more deeply you understand other people, the more you will appreciate them, the more reverent you will feel about them. To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground.”While an empathy gap between CEOs and employees remains, Businesssolver’s 2021 State of Workplace Empathy study, released in May 2021, revealed empathy ratings have risen during the pandemic.

Greater shares of employees, human resources professionals and CEOs view their organization as empathetic in 2021 compared to 2020. About 72 percent of employees said their organizations are empathetic, up four percentage points from 2020, and 72 percent said the same for CEOs, an increase of nine percentage points from 2020.

The challenge now is to build on the momentum of the pandemic and instill empathy in all systems to enhance ethical organization culture. The underlying issue is to recognize the needs of stakeholders, especially employees, in business operations and decision-making, a concept that is integral to ethical decision-making.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on August 18, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.