Cultivating Empathy in the Workplace

Being a good listener, caring deeply for others' suffering, feeling overwhelmed by tragic events—all of these qualities point to empathy, a natural, human ability to feel what others are feeling.

These qualities will also help shape the future of the workplace, as empathy is becoming a disruptive force that organizations are tapping into—especially in response to the pandemic and cultural and social movements. 

The increasing need for empathy in the workplace is largely driven by the use of technology as a primary source of interaction. Technology speeds up the flow of information and blurs the boundaries between work and personal time. 

And as the nature of work continues to evolve, one of the key elements of a thriving workplace will be the ability to embody empathy as an organizational and cultural value. In fact, 91 percent of CEOs see a direct link between empathy and an organization’s financial performance. Of course there are other benefits, too, such as improved talent retention and engagement and a culture of compassion and well being. 

So, what does it look like for organizations to cultivate empathy in the workplace? 

Transparent Leadership 

With the workplace barriers created by remote working arrangements, it’s important for leaders to practice sharing their own stories and experiences. This helps employees to see their leaders as human and relatable, while allowing them to be more open and honest with their own experiences.  

When it comes to a distributed workforce, empathy through sharing helps to build the connective tissue between employees and their leaders. Some organizations may already have an open culture, where leaders can foster connection by continuing the experience-sharing. For other companies who are newer to this practice, consider hosting optional events for story sharing, discussions around the current social climate, or conversations facilitated by  culture experts. Employees will appreciate the sense of community and authenticity and respond thoughtfully to these efforts.

Draw Attention to the Right Behavior 

Highlighting employees who are acting kindly and working collaboratively can incentivize other employees to model this behavior. You can use social platforms and tools to show gratitude for an employee acting with empathy. 

At Namely, for example, we have a social news feed that encourages employees to appreciate one another, and we host a random drawing every month to reward three employees who have been appreciated by their colleagues. This encourages employees to see the importance of positive behavior in the workplace and focuses recognition toward creating a more empathetic norm. 

Leaders can also model empathy in their own behavior when interacting with employees by practicing empathetic listening, avoiding interruptions, and trying to truly understand what their employees are struggling with.

Empower Culture Leaders 

At every company, there are individuals who tend to be generous, well-connected, and regarded well by their coworkers. Even if it’s not within their formal role, these employees foster team cohesion, and help influence ideas and values. While they may not be the loudest or most visible employees, it’s important to identify who they are and empower them to lead through positive reinforcement. 

Their positive attitudes will become more widespread and lead to greater cultural change. You may even consider bringing these culture leaders into the recruiting or onboarding process, so they can serve as “kindness ambassadors” when candidates and new hires are being introduced to the company. Supporting these connections and conversations will help champion the cause and lay a foundation for empathy right from the start.

Incorporate it into your Values 

Leaders can set the tone for empathy in the workplace by making it a publicly held organizational value. This can be achieved by incorporating empathy into your mission statement, company values, training sessions, or professional development programs. 

At Namely, for instance, our value of “Give” promotes workplace empathy by enabling employees to give back to the community and each other through appreciation, volunteering, and charitable giving. 

Declaring that empathy is a priority for the organization is a powerful way to establish it as a “north star” guide for employee behavior. This creates accountability, psychological safety, and boosts morale—through employees engaging and interacting with one another in a compassionate manner, the organization is cultivating acceptance, inclusion, and reciprocity.

Want to learn more about incorporating company values? Check out our blog post on Why Your Company’s Core Values Are Critical in a Crisis

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