Empathy in the Workplace:
Overcoming Three Common Misconceptions

It’s no secret that many people love working from home. Over this past year, we were all tossed into a grand experiment in which many of us learned how to work remotely. Remote work comes with many advantages: suddenly, you are free to roll out of bed in the morning and join a meeting, pick up your child in the middle of the afternoon, or work out immediately after the workday ends.

However, many of these perceived benefits to the employee come at an almost imperceptible cost: we can feel less connected to our workplace and coworkers. When we trade natural times to connect for virtual interaction, the opportunities for colleagues to connect on a personal level – let alone express empathy – are few and far between. We think a decline in workplace empathy could be part of the reason why some people are feeling disconnected right now.

A 2020 State of Workplace Empathy report by Businessolver found that the number of employees who feel their workplace is empathetic has declined from 78% to 68%, down 10% from previous years. Furthermore, the percentage of HR professionals who felt their organisation is empathetic declined even more dramatically from 95% to 77%.  

At its core, empathy is about understanding someone else’s point of view, and it is essential for creating cooperative and productive relationships in the workplace. Research also shows that developing an empathetic workforce contributes to increased motivation, productivity, and lower turnover. If empathy is this essential to workplace success, why might it be on the decline? We hypothesise that three common misconceptions can prevent leaders from prioritising this important business imperative: 

  • Building an empathetic workforce takes more time than it’s worth.
  • Expressing empathy requires a certain level of vulnerability and being vulnerable in the workplace can be seen as a weakness.
  • It’s tough to know how people are feeling when you aren’t face to face, so practicing empathy isn’t essential in a remote/hybrid workplace.

However, you can overcome all three of these misconceptions with strategic investments in your workplace culture. Let’s take a look at each misconception and reframe our thinking.

Misconception #1: Building an empathic workforce takes more time than it’s worth

One of the keys to creating strong and healthy workplace morale is good communication. Most people have had meetings where people talk over one another, so only the loudest ideas in the room gain traction. Conversely, you may have seen the opposite, where no one talks, and the collective silence is taken as a tacit agreement to the prevailing idea. This is where a skill like empathy really matters, it allows people to read situations and respond accordingly, which fosters human connection, allowing people to work better together.

Empathy is considered a soft (aka social and emotional) skill. These skills allow us to improve our relationships with our co-workers, develop more productive teams, and resolve conflicts when necessary. However, soft skills are hard work and require a time investment to be effective. Many of us don’t always think we have the time to invest in soft skills development because they can’t be directly tied to business objectives, but research suggests that investing in employee well-being and soft skill development increases retention, engagement, productivity, and overall job satisfaction. With a time investment on the front end, your team will learn how to stretch beyond their natural tendencies to express empathy in every situation, ultimately getting to great ideas more quickly.

Misconception #2: Expressing empathy requires a certain level of vulnerability and being vulnerable in the workplace can be seen as a weakness

Empathy in the workplace requires you to be, to a certain extent, a little bit vulnerable. You might be thinking, “be vulnerable at work? No thank you!”, but being vulnerable at work is important because it helps to create a culture of trust. And, if you’re a manager, creating a culture that allows space for vulnerability is critical. For instance, would you rather have your employees ask for help when they’re having problems, because they trust you will respond with empathy, or would you prefer to become aware of issues when deadlines are missed because your team doesn’t feel comfortable opening up to you when concerns arise?

According to Harvard Business Review, “managers who display high levels of empathy have three times the impact on their employees’ performance than those who display low levels of empathy.” When leaders have high levels of emotional intelligence, they create an atmosphere where their employees feel supported and thus more engaged.

Misconception #3: It’s tough to know how people are feeling when you aren’t face to face, so practicing empathy isn’t essential in a remote/hybrid workplace

Your working environment has likely shifted due to the universal challenges of the past year. Virtual meetings and communications have become a part of your new normal. As a result, you are often not in physical proximity with your coworkers, making it easy to forget that you are working with people who also have their own communication styles, behaviors, and natural tendencies. Some coworkers thrive while working from home, while others miss all the daily interactions that come from working in an office. According to Virtual Vocations, there are four concrete ways to show empathy with a remote and hybrid team:

  1. Incorporate unstructured face time into virtual meetings.
  2. Allow each person time and space to contribute.
  3. Listen and encourage different perspectives.
  4. Always remain open to communication.

By implementing these concepts, empathy can increase in the remote or hybrid workplace, and what follows is a more inclusive, harmonious, and efficient remote team. That’s a result worth the effort.

Empathy is an investment in building an environment that people want to be a part of – the kind of place that inspires people to do what they do even better. The good news? You can reverse the decline in workplace empathy by providing your entire team with the opportunity to learn the social and emotional skills that are critical for creating lasting change through positive and productive day-to-day interactions.

Because empathy is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and it takes effort to learn and develop, it’s imperative to provide your people with the right tools for self-discovery. That’s where Everything DiSC® can help. Everything DiSC utilises the DiSC model to describe four basic behavior styles: dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness. While identifying your DiSC style is a step towards richer personal growth and understanding, it is only one piece of the relationship puzzle. Taking that knowledge, a step further and putting it into practice leads to tangible transformation.

See how each DiSC style expresses empathy and where they may need to stretch during stressful interactions.