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Why is empathy treated like a four letter word in the workplace?

Graphic that says "#EmpathyAtWork"

Recently I was leading a team calibration session for a senior leadership team. We dove into the three elements of trust: authenticity, logic, and empathy. The team was really tracking for the first two elements, but when empathy was brought up, it was as if I had said a four-letter word.

This isn’t the first group to feel uncomfortable when empathy in the workplace is brought up. It’s almost always something teams that I facilitate with have a hard time accepting that it matters at work. The general feedback that I immediately received is that empathy is too mushy, soft, weak, and ‘touchy-feely’. And while these are the connotations of the word, it’s important to examine what empathy looks like in the workplace. More often than not, the things that we really value in leaders and coworkers fall under the category of empathy–we just aren’t labeling it as so.

A participant at the retreat shared, “I don’t know about empathy” but then said, “but I appreciate when someone listens to my perspective and has my back.” From my view, this is an act of empathy. Another question that came up in our discussion was “what if someone values logic more than empathy?” We explored together that empathy offers us safety and when we don’t feel safe, the rest of our values quickly take a back seat. 

Here are a few other examples that we may not readily identify as empathy, but when we examine what these acts feel like, empathy is at the top of the list.

  • “I can care about you and also have expectations.”
  • Asking people what something means to them.
  • If you notice someone struggling, mention it…offer a break, a sandwich, a coffee, leaving early for a day.
  • Having empathy when delivering a tough message or having a difficult conversation. Tone, intention, wording and curiosity all matter. “I can tell this is hard for you to hear. I’m sharing this feedback because I believe in you and know you can make this better.”

I think there is a fear connected to empathy that is similar to expressing love in the workplace. Perhaps we think that if we care too much, we won’t be effective at our jobs. Or that if we care too much, we’ll become too connected to our team members and won’t be able to hold them accountable. 

Fast fact! You can be empathetic AND hold someone accountable. 

We would love to hear from you! What are examples of empathy in the workplace that you’ve experienced or observed? Share them on social media using hashtag #empathyatwork or shoot us a message and we will share next week. 

Cheers to having each other’s back! To understanding perspectives! To empathy in the workplace!

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[…] that empathy is a non-negotiable as a leader. Empathic leadership is a topic you’ve heard me muse on before, and as the pandemic continues, I see the need for empathy exponentially […]

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