“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.” – Daniel Pink
When the word empathy is raised in connection with work, it can conjure up different reactions. For some it can fly in the face of traditional working practices where the relentless pursuit of individualised goals without consideration of others, has been normalised, encouraged and rewarded. In others, empathy can represent the core essence of how they work – it’s how they do business. It’s the glue that binds employees and stakeholders together.
Empathy is about connecting to others, seeing them, hearing them- understanding them – it’s the art of stepping into the shoes of another person and looking at the world from their perspective. It’s about understanding the thoughts, feelings ideas and beliefs that make up their view of the world and understanding where they are really coming from. In some cases it leads to empathic action – actions that respond to their needs as a result of this connection.
Neursocience research tells us that we are wired for empathy. Mirror neurons, are the “smart cells” in our brains that allow us to understand others’ actions, intentions, and feelings. They fire when we experience an emotion and similarly when we see others experiencing an emotion, such as happiness, fear, anger, or sadness. Mirror neurons help us to be empathic and fundamentally attuned to other people.
We also know that some people are more naturally drawn to tasks and situations that draw on this strength. Our tool Strengthscope® actually measures 24 work based strengths and the extent to whether empathy is an underlying quality that energises you and if it is one of your significant 7 strengths.
If you have empathy as a significant strength, you probably readily identify with other people’s situations and can see things clearly from their perspective. You probably find it relatively easy to ‘put yourself in another’s shoes’ and appreciate not only what people are saying, but also why they are saying it. You have a keen interest and understanding of ‘what makes people tick’- their underlying motivations and drivers.
This is what it can sound like when it’s showing up:
“Adults can be very vulnerable and equally as scared and as petrified as children would be in this situation. I put myself into that position and appreciate what they are going through.”
“I find myself automatically sensing what others are feeling and am fascinated by what makes people tick. I will probe to understand more and I find it easy to see the world through their eyes.”
We know that empathy like many strengths can be strengthened, and learned. So how can you cultivate this strength further in yourself and others, and create a more empathic culture in your organisation? Here are some questions that may help you stretch and develop your empathy strength further.
How can you use your empathy to build closer working relationships with your stakeholders? What improvements would you expect to see in the relationship as a result?
In what ways could you use your empathy to help others understand difference and conflict from different perspectives to promote understanding and cohesion?
How can you use your empathy to overcome difficulties working with someone you don’t relate to well?
How can you create an environment of open communication and effective feedback?
Empathy has clear workplace benefits. Being empathetic with your colleagues helps to validate what they’re going through. Empathy allows us to feel safe to explore our failures because it removes blame and accusation as a default narrative. It encourages an understanding of the root cause behind poor performance and creates a climate that supports employees to be vulnerable, take risks, improve and excel.
“When you show deep empathy towards others, their defensive energy goes down and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you get more creativity…” – Stephen Covey