Showing Empathy In The Workplace

Showing Empathy In The Workplace
Summary: Don't be fooled by how simple and straightforward these practices seem. The real challenge (and difficulty) is doing them day-in and day-out.

4 Tips To Help Leaders Express Empathy In The Workplace

Almost all leadership advice, when it's reduced down to its simplest components, centers on empathy.

Delivering praise and feedback in a meaningful way: empathy. Effectively passing along bad news to the team: most easily accomplished with empathy. Explaining to the boss how and why you disagree with a decision: empathy (... as well as timing and tact).

As Richard S. Wellins, senior vice president of Development Dimensions International, says [1], "leadership can be defined as the ability to have a successful conversation with everyone in your organization—and empathy is the most important piece of any conversation".

And yet, even though we all acknowledge the value of empathy, it isn't often the focus of professional development. It's a little weird that it isn't. Because, oftentimes, when empathy is needed most – like when quarterly goals aren't met or layoffs hit – it is among the first things shed, in favor of steely-eyed determination and gritty focus.

There's no set way to gain or show empathy. It's a practiced skill that is unique to each person because we all have our own personality quirks. There are a few relatively standard techniques that you can use to figure out how to best express empathy, though. Here are 4 general guidelines to help you down that path.

1. Be Human

People need to see each other as individuals in order to show and experience empathy. This part is tricky for leaders because they're the ones with a steady hand on the rudder. However, being a steady consistent presence doesn't mean your team shouldn't get to know who you are as a person.

Stay mindful of the fact that conversations are two-way streets. You have to give a little to get a little. When the opportunity presents itself, share your hobbies or whatever has captured your imagination outside of work.

Rapport and personal connections aren't easy to develop, but without those things, any attempt to show empathy in the workplace tends to come off as hollow and forced.

2. Talk Face To Face

There is any number of ways for teams to stay in touch both in and out of the workplace. Slack, Hipchat, Gchat, all the things. It's not unheard of to send a Slack message to someone who sits at the next desk over.

Sure, these tools make coordination easy and help streamline a whole slew of work-related tasks. But communicating tone, empathy, and warmth is hard through just words. Trust and respect build through small interactions over time, and it's harder to get meaningful interactions over online chats than face-to-face conversations.

If you aren't already, think about scheduling regular in-person meetings with each person on your team just to catch up on a professional and personal basis. Take some time to ask them about life outside of work. See if they're willing to talk about the big picture aspects of their life, like if they're working on having any passion projects or have big events or milestones coming up.

It's possible to hold these sort of informal meetings with team members who work remotely. Rene Shimada Siegel, president and founder of the consulting firm High Tech Connect, told Fast Company that video conferencing is about 80% as effective as face-to-face interaction [2].

3. Listen More, Talk Less

Restauranteur and best-selling author, Danny Meyer, talks about the value of assuming a person has the best of intentions in his book "Setting the Table," in which he details his approach to customer experience.

"Mindsets often become self-fulfilling prophecies, so what you think of someone is likely to happen," he writes.

Don't taint your mind with doubt right off the bat. Take time and listen without interjecting or reflexively commenting. Ask questions to help you understand what the other person is saying rather than just waiting for your turn to talk.

You can infer a lot from listening in general, not just in conversation. I'm not recommending you eavesdrop, but listening to the tone of conversations around the office is useful for gaining an understanding of the general level of morale. Are people on edge and a little frustrated? Are project deadlines causing undue tension among a department or between departments? Take stock of this, and think about the best way to keep everyone motivated and on track.

4. Walk The Walk

Leading by example isn't easy almost by definition. Oftentimes, the greatest opportunity to show people the way you expect them to act is during the most challenging, difficult times.

Let's imagine a scenario where your boss makes a hard choice, a decision that you disagree with. Give yourself a little time to process your reaction before bringing the information to your team. Try to think about it from the boss's perspective: the stress and pressure they might feel, and how that might have affected the decision-making process. This is a chance to practice and demonstrate empathy.

When you do tell the team the news, do so with an appropriate amount of tact and gravity. Don't point fingers at the boss or someone else up the hierarchy. Give the team time to absorb the message, and if the room falls silent don't feel pressured to just fill the void with words.

None of these little methods for building empathy are particularly hard on their own. The true challenge of this is consistency. You have to be empathetic and communicative every single day. When you're able to do so, all these little actions add up to a huge amount of trust and respect within your team.


  1. Is Empathy Dead? How Your Lack Of Empathy Damages Your Reputation And Impact As A Leader
  2. The Science Of When You Need In-Person Communication