Members of today’s workforce increasingly care more about being part of an empathetic and compassionate organization. A recent EY survey found that 58% of employees have previously left a job because they didn’t feel valued by their boss, and 48% have left a job because they didn’t feel like they belonged. Recent economic movements like the Great Resignation and “quiet quitting,” a new approach for setting professional boundaries, have been spurred by employees seeking better treatment.
In addition to helping you grow as an individual, developing empathy helps others feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, and as a result, helps you retain top talent and boost individual and organizational success. New research shows that of those surveyed, 61% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being innovative at work, compared to only 13% of those with less empathic senior leaders.
Empathy can be defined simply as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It differs from sympathy, which involves being moved by, or responding in tune with another person. Empathy goes beyond sympathy—it’s about understanding the experiences of another as if you were experiencing it yourself, and it’s a crucial skill for bridging the boundaries between us.
There are three kinds of empathy:
- Cognitive empathy: a desire to understand
- Emotional empathy: a desire to feel
- Compassionate empathy: a desire to help and support
While different situations call for different kinds of empathy, sometimes all three are necessary for healthy working relationships and psychologically safe team environments.
Consider this example:
You are a team leader, and you’ve recently been noticing that one of your team members isn’t as energetic and engaged as she usually is in group discussions. You notice her children come up to her work space a couple times during a virtual meeting. She apologizes to the group many times, and by her message and tone you can assume she’s overwhelmed. In this moment, you exercise cognitive empathy, as you consider her circumstances and what she may be thinking or feeling as a result.
You try to put yourself in her shoes. There could be a whole host of reasons she may be feeling a lot, and you are aware of the significant weight women usually have to carry in the home, on top of their day-to-day jobs. In your next one-on-one meeting with your teammate, after determining the best way to show support, you ask how things are going—allowing her to choose what to share and how to share it. Before you know it, you learn that her partner is away on business, her children do not currently have after-school care, and she has loved ones close to a war zone in another country. Some of these situations you can relate to, and others are circumstances you’ve never even had to think about before. You express your sympathy about how she is dealing with so much. You are demonstrating emotional empathy—not only do you understand your teammate and her circumstances better, but you are building genuine rapport and helping her feel comfortable addressing these heavy issues at work.
Now you are able to help. You offer timeline extensions, and emphasize that it’s more than fine if her children need her attention at various times when they get home from school. Most importantly, you are showing solidarity with your teammate by creating a psychologically safe team environment in which she, and others, can feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work—including the circumstances and feelings that are hard to ignore. In this way, you are exhibiting compassionate empathy, also known as behavioral empathy, by sharing their pain and taking practical steps to reduce it.
In addition to this example, there are endless ways to display empathy, in any of its forms, with those you work with. From the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, to economic woes and doomscrolling, there are enough factors in today’s world to bring any of us down, and conveying empathy is an important part of the role we each have in creating a workplace that honors the realities of every individual.
Download an Interactive Guide for the Compassionate Leader for thought-provoking prompts to use with your employees.