Change catalyst: Empathy at Work

by Ruth Friedman

Empathy at work

Research shows that empathy at work, as well as anytime, brings positive effects. Empathy facilitates stress reduction, calms the nervous system, reduces the risk of burnout, and helps you get out of yourself which leads to an increase in your concern for others needs.

Empathy at work: How do you build and maintain it?

Following is an example of recognizing and building empathy at work. The other day I was with a client, a senior executive with a challenging role who had recently arrived in Belgium. He told me that he was struggling with some of his new Belgian colleagues. They weren’t open to the solutions that he and his team of consultants wanted to implement.

One of the solutions involved a reduction in headcount, among other significant and unpopular changes. He seemed genuinely surprised that his ideas were meeting with resistance, and he appeared incapable of seeing things from a perspective other than his own. These colleagues, he believed, were lazy and that they should be able to see how everyone would benefit. (This was also his attitude about the people who were going to need to find another job.)

I invited him, just for a moment, to put himself into the shoes of his colleagues to see how they might be feeling. I invited him to send them some empathy in the face of their challenging situation. He said it was easier to send goodwill to the people who were working hard and onboard with his plans. He reported that it was a struggle to send empathy to the people resisting his plans and whom he thought were lazy.

Meanwhile, I was facing a similar challenge to get past my own judgments about him. It wasn’t so easy to find my own goodwill and empathy for this man who was, after all, facing a difficult situation and who didn’t understand the reaction with which he was dealing.

Empathy at work is revealed to be a key leadership quality.

Learning to have empathy at work is definitely worthwhile, and research confirms this! Empathy is now recognized as a key leadership quality. For example, a recent study by The Center for Creative Leadership in Brussels (CCL) has identified the need to build and maintain relationships with empathy as a key part in that. “Leaders today need to be more person-focused and be able to work with those not just in the next cubicle, but also with those in other buildings, or other countries.”

Forbes also argues strongly that having empathy at work is essential for successful business and that the ability to connect with and relate to others is a key force to move a business forward.  They make the point that in order to have an effective workforce you need to be able to meet people where they are and to compromise.  Read the article here.

What I find particularly interesting is that research shows that empathy at work, as well as anytime, brings positive effects for you as well. It will help you to reduce your own stress. You will also get out of yourself and make room for the needs and concerns of others. Research also shows that it calms the nervous system and reduces the stress response; plus, it can reduce the risk of burnout. To read more, click here.

Tips for building empathy at work.

Try these tips for successful relationships with colleagues (and anyone):

  1. Develop active listening skills: Check your understanding by feeding back what you just heard. Doing this, you will become much more present. It is too easy to fall into thinking about what you are going to say next. Then, it is very difficult to listen to what the other person is saying. If you are going to summarize what they have just told you, you will listen in a different way. This way, the person feels that you have sincerely heard them. You don’t have to agree with them, but you can let them know that you heard what they said.
  2. Stay open: Perhaps your colleagues have a perspective or an idea that can help your project to go forward. If you have already decided that your way is best, then you will miss the chance to develop an even better solution.
  3. Notice:  Recognize if you are holding judgments about the person or what they are saying. Notice if you are having some kind of reaction if you disagree with them. The point is to notice it and not to get caught up in it. This means finding distance from your own negativity so that it doesn’t damage the relationship. When I worked with the client that I described at the beginning of this article, I saw my own judgments of him. I acknowledged the judgments for being there, and I kept coming back to give my attention to the client.
  4. Focus: There are methods, like focusing, which can be used in these situations. You will find that focusing on the other person, instead of yourself, to be extremely beneficial for a successful path to empathy.

Give yourself empathy at work.

Give yourself the same empathy and goodwill that you want others to extend to you. This means including yourself as you think of all the challenges that people are facing. You, too, have your challenges and it is not easy for you in those situations.

Be grateful.

A sense of gratitude brings a wider perspective. Even if you have challenging colleagues, maybe you can be grateful that you have a job and some security. If you have challenges, isn’t that better than work that is boring or unstimulating?

It’s another sunny day in Belgium. This is definitely something to be grateful for!


About the Trainer and Coach:

Ruth Friedman is an experienced trainer and coach with strong communication skills and a track record of delivering well-received, innovative programs. She specializes in intercultural understanding, diversity, inclusion, and professional development. Read more about Ruth here.

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