Empathy at the workplace


taboo or talent?

“Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.” – Job 14: 1 & 2

Life is war and it is full of struggles. There are many problems at the workplace. And there are many, many more problems and challenges in the world. Everyone experiences various degrees of problems or difficulties at one time or the other.

We shall look at some circumstances which may create problems for some workers. These encounters may affect their mood, health, attendance, communication, work performance, work attitudes and relationships.

Troublous situations

  1. A bereaved person. William Shakespeare wrote: “…death, a necessary end will come when it will come”. But when it comes it may leave some unpleasant or devastating effects on some relations. It might not impact strongly on others. An employee who is bereaved may not be himself, and emotionally stable for a period of time. This can affect his performance.
  2. A separated spouse or divorcee. Such people may go through some psychological torture which may affect their output.
  3. An abused person – married or unmarried. Such an employee may go through torture and other challenges which will affect his working behaviour and conduct.
  4. Sexually harassed person. She may undergo serious trauma which may call for the intervention of an industrial psychologist. This can change his professional outlook and performance.
  5. Depressed staff. An employee in such a category is in a very dangerous and serious situation. He may be contemplating a number of things, including suicide, which will alter his relationship with his work colleagues and friends.
  6. Addicted employees. (Drugs, Gambling, Smoking and others) They have a number of woes and may behave abnormally at the workplace.
  7. Workers with very sick dependants. (They include those on admission at hospitals, those having psychiatry problems at home and those incapacitated.) They might not put up their best.

Employees with following issues may have a change in their relationships with their leaders and work colleagues. They may be seriously challenged emotionally and psychologically and, therefore, affect their work output. They may experience occasions of confusion.

  1. Workers with heavy extra dependants apart from nuclear family members.
  2. A worker with deviant and delinquent children.
  3. A person with unemployed spouse or woes of single parenthood.
  4. Pregnant staff.
  5. Pre-retirement blues.
  6. Accident/disaster victims.
  7. An incriminated staff.
  8. An expatriate staff with different cultural background.
  9. A staff who has failed his professional examinations.
  10. A staff who has suffered a number of attacks from robbers.
  11. A staff who has serious and several health challenges.
  12. Staff whose sons/daughters are in court for various reasons.

Some other persons with other problems which will affect their conduct and performance may be added to the list.

Unwillingness to practice empathy

In spite of many situations or experiences as in the cases stated earlier, some leaders may not consider to be empathetic toward their affected direct reports or work colleagues. Empathy may be considered a taboo in some work organisations. Some managers, senior executives and leaders may ignore the soft skill called empathy, and treat employees as machines which must work to generate the required output. These people do not place great values on their workers. They do not take time to observe and study their feelings, emotions, experiences, desires and values in order to take or recommend an appropriate management decision to achieve win-win positions.

They are of the belief that managers must not be soft. Their main aim is to achieve the numerical targets set by Management. They are less tolerant about the welfare, problems and prospects of their direct reports. They concentrate so much on rules and regulations, and seem to be insensitive to the needs and voices of their team members. In their minds, the industry has become more competitive, and costs must be reduced for survival.

They are not ready to be considerate and examine emotional needs and the intense pressure and work overload of employees. As the employment market is full, and they can get replacements, they are not mindful of the opinions of workers. They don’t care about extremely high targets set for their direct supports. They can pressure them to work for extensive hours to achieve these targets in the name of maintaining their jobs or positions.

These leaders, who consider empathy as a taboo may fear that workers will take undue advantage of the empathetic approach and abuse it. They may think that if they consider their views and feelings, workers will take them for granted and performances may go down. They therefore do not trust in empathy. They may think their bosses will consider them as ineffective and overly lenient if they practice empathy.

They are not open to critique and criticisms. They lack listening and collaborative skills. Daniel Goreman noted: “Being emotionally tone deaf leads to social awkwardness, whether from misconstruing feelings or through a mechanical, out-of-tune bluntness or indifference that destroys rapport. One form this lack of empathy can take is responding to other people as stereotypes rather than as the unique individuals they are”.

The empathetic approach

Empathy is an important soft skill. Those who display this skill are sensitive to the thoughts, emotions, problems, perspectives and experiences of others as stated under the heading ‘Troublous situations’. They are able to cooperate with their team members, other team groups, units, departments, directorates, countries or people from various backgrounds and cultures. According to an article written by Thrive HR Exchange on Why Empathy in the Workplace Matters, empathy was considered as a key component of emotional intelligence and leadership effectiveness which improves communication significantly and results in positive outcomes in both workplaces and home settings.

There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy implies having feelings of pity for other people without actually understanding what those persons are going through. Sympathy may denote the feelings of sorrow for someone’s misfortune without comprehending the experiences and implications of what they are going through. Empathy shows the capability to recognise, perceive or connect to the feelings, thoughts, experiences or emotions of other persons. An employee with the talent of empathy will be able to relate himself to another person’s situation or imagine himself in another person’s ‘shoes’ to feel or experience his sufferings, emotions, perspectives, ideas or opinions with a view to reacting positively. He has compassion for the needs and challenges of others. Such a person will know how to manage people in those situations and achieve work targets as well.

Daniel Goleman, author of the book ‘Working with Emotional Intelligence’, made insightful contributions on the skill of empathy.  He identified five thematic areas on empathy which he considered as “foundation skill for all social competencies important for work”. These are:

  1. Understanding others: Sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns.
  2. Service orientation: Anticipating, recognising and meeting customers’ needs.
  • Developing others: Sensing others’ development needs and bolstering their abilities.
  1. Leveraging diversity: Cultivating opportunities through diverse people.
  2. Political awareness: Reading the political and social currents in an organisation.

The empathetic manager is sensitive to the needs of his team members and customers. Empathy is key to building a strong work team and clients. A manager who believes in empathy shows concern for customers’ complaints and the well-being or welfare of his team. He appreciates and acknowledges their efforts and contributions. He promotes a sense of belongingness within his team, and builds trust and loyalty. A working team which believes and practices empathy promotes team cohesion and unity of purpose. It promotes collaboration. The team members who take keen interest in the concerns of other team members will be willing to go the extra mile to stand in for a colleague who has a challenge and take minimal risk for improved performance. He will multi-task and bear the burden of others.

Empathy supports in the building of psychological safety in work environments. A team member knows that a minimal mistake will not be punished. He has the confidence that his manager will be willing to listen to his professional ideas, his perspectives on project evaluations, his judgements, and he appreciates the meanings of his tone and facial expressions during discussions. Under empathetic work environment, the team member will disclose some important feedback from customers and competitors because he knows his leader will listen to him. In fact, the empathetic manager will not only listen but reflect on business and operations issues raised by employees, customers and the community. Furthermore, because of this skill, the manager will be able to appreciate different organisational perspectives, cultures and diversities of experiences to provide professional support to global managers and even overseas customers. These may contribute to conflict resolution among employees, managing operational problems with customers, and promoting creativity and innovation.

The empathetic leader exhibits interest in the dreams, aspirations, commitments, contributions, challenges, needs, hopes and fears of others. He endeavours to encourage his direct reports and seeks to motivate them or ameliorate their plights and attend to their concerns. He makes effort to find the goals or strengths of team members and match their aspirations to their assignments to achieve job satisfaction and better job performance. He explores the potentials of his team members and seeks to develop their abilities, skills and competencies which will result in improvement in performance and profitability.

Taboo or talent?

Institutions which do not encourage the cultivation of empathetic skills should take a new look at their position. It is more rewarding to show empathy at the workplace than to be insensitive to the needs, plights, challenges, concerns, ideas, ideals and perspectives of others. Empathy is a talent, an emotional intelligence, an interpersonal relationship value, bond-building tool and a person-focused skill. Indeed, it must not be considered as a taboo. Remember, those you display empathy toward will rise up to the task and reciprocate your understanding nature, appreciative concern, and cooperating attitude with zeal to achieve more for his team. The empathetic leader who shows keen interest in the development of his team members will be rewarded with a team with diverse skills and competencies. This will definitely contribute to enhance performance.

The Rise’s publication on The Importance of Showing Empathy in the Workplace (2019), submitted that: “A study from Harvard Business Review found that empathetic companies outperform their more callous counterparts by 20 percent… An empathetic workplace equals an engaged workforce, and that translates to business success”.

The writer is a Chartered Banker. e-mail:[email protected]

Leave a Reply