Empathy into engagement: The case for compassion in the workplace
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Fact: Empathy in the workplace is critical. Fact: Empathy leads to compassion. Fact: Leaders can cultivate both. Are you cultivating empathy and compassion in your workplace setting? If not, why not?
A recent study of nearly 900 workers conducted by Catalyst found that workplace empathy led to increases in inclusivity, innovation, retention, engagement, and work-life balance. The study also found that when employees perceived leaders as “empathetic,” employees were far more likely to report positive mental health status.
Reflecting on the Catalyst findings, sociologist Tracy Bowers notes, “Empathy may not be a brand new skill, but it has a new level of importance and the fresh research makes it especially clear how empathy is the leadership competency to develop and demonstrate now and in the future of work.”
The truth is one can find a hundred different studies from a hundred different sources that affirm the importance of empathy in the workplace. Anecdotally, we all know from personal experience that leaders and coworkers who support us – who get us and show it – help create and sustain a positive and safe environment. With all the above in mind, we should ask ourselves, “How do we cultivate a culture of empathy in our settings and then leverage empathy to practice compassion and do some good?” Cultivation begins with the understanding that there is a marked difference between “cognitive empathy” and its first cousin, “compassion.”
Literature produced by the Greater Good Science Center at Berkely asserts, “Empathy is a building block of morality—for people to follow the Golden Rule, it helps if they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes.” As one might imagine, cognitive empathy focuses on one’s ability to understand what another person encounters in life. In their contributions to the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, psychologists Sara Hodges and Michael Meyer offer this about empathy:
“Empathy is often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation: One understands the other person’s experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it. A distinction is maintained between self and other. Sympathy, in contrast, involves the experience of being moved by, or responding in tune with, another person.”
Drawing from the Hodges and Meyer definition, one might assume that cognitive empathy requires a certain level of emotional intimacy with the other. Said another way, one cannot fully support someone in a vulnerable space without reciprocating the vulnerability. In the workplace, vulnerability – emotional intimacy – is possible when the culture is safe, expressive, and collaborative. All this cultural nuance rests with leaders. Here’s the thing. If one seeks to build a workplace that is safe, expressive, and collaborative, then there must be a thorough assessment of what the culture looks like in real time.
What might this look like? Spend some money on an outside consultant when it’s time to evaluate culture. Dig deep, asking employees to describe what empathy does and does not look like in the workplace. Use the data and anecdotal evidence to remove barriers to empathy. Often, leaders will need to be vulnerable about their vocational lives and some of their personal history. They demonstrate “It’s okay to let our guard down in this place.” Also, learn how to measure organizational success through employee satisfaction, not just quantitative outputs. Provide venues for speaking freely about the joys and challenges of parenting, partnering, adulting, and rising in the vocational environment.
Compassion is empathy in action. If empathy implies stepping into the shoes of the other, then compassion means taking a walk in those shoes and making the other’s story part of the individual’s story. Yes, the good, bad, and ugly of the other’s story. Compassion requires risk. For the one offering compassion, risk could mean taking on a long-term commitment to help the other through a crisis. Risk could also mean that one offers compassion to a bitter rival or former adversary.
In a piece on conflict featured in Harvard Business Review, contributors Brianna Barker Caza, Mara Olekalns, and Timothy J. Vogus remind their audience that work is community; work is relationship.
“Workplaces are communities, built around the relationships we have with our peers. When these relationships are strong, they can be a source of energy, learning, and support. But when they fracture, even just temporarily, they become sources of frustration that harm both people and organizations.”
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This snippet from HBR reminds us all that the health of workplace relationships can mean the difference between organizational growth or decay. A thriving community or a dying one. Compassion mends fractures and mitigates the development of future fractures. Compassion communicates to employees
and coworkers, “We care about your personhood, not just your productivity.”
What might compassion look like in your environment? Providing free access to mental health screeners. Creating a “paid leave bank” that allows members of the team to share their accumulated time off with those experiencing a personal emergency. Low-cost continuing education opportunities, massages, yoga, and “in-house” childcare demonstrate compassion too. Ultimately, accessible leadership – leadership with daily rapport with the team – is a step toward compassion. If the boss knows some of my story, and I know some of hers, then we can break bread together about the good and not-so-good of life.
Fact: Empathy can be taught. Fact: Compassion can be modeled. Fact: Every healthy organization needs both.
Victoria is a 20+ year Corporate Executive and Board Director and is currently a Managing Director at Accenture. Her titles include: The 2023 Woman of Influence by South Florida Business Journal, 2022 Top 30 Most Influential Business Leaders in Tech by CIOLook, 2022 Most Influential Entrepreneur of the Year by World Magazine, 2021’s Top 50 Business Leader in Technology by Insight Magazine and a Mentor of the Year by Women in Communications & Technology in 2020. HSBC bank awarded her the Diversity & Inclusion in Innovation award in 2019. She was IBM’s #1 Global Social Seller ranked by LinkedIn in 2019 and 2020.