What Is Empathy In The Workplace?

What Is Empathy In the Workplace? (Not to Be Confused with Ruinous Empathy)

By Indiana Lee, a freelance journalist specializing in business operations, leadership, communication, and marketing who regularly contributes workplace culture article to Radical Candor.

Leadership expectations have shifted, especially in recent years. Employees now expect a higher level of empathy in the workplace and understanding from their leaders. 

This change was accelerated by the pandemic and remote work, where personal and professional lives became more intertwined.

Leaders who were trained in more traditional, results-focused approaches are now finding themselves needing to adapt to these new expectations while still driving performance.

What Is Empathy In the Workplace? (Not to Be Confused with Ruinous Empathy) empathy in the workplace,Why Empathy Is Important In the Workplace

Folks need to feel that they are supported and understood by their peers and managers at work, and deserve to feel safe and valued during their professional careers. 

However, many people are never taught how to properly empathize at work and either overcorrect to Ruinous Empathy, go the total opposite route and embody Obnoxious Aggression, or land in Manipulative Insincerity where they check out mentally.

The key difference between empathy and Ruinous Empathy is that empathy is caring about someone personally, while Ruinous Empathy is when that care prevents you from giving them the direct feedback and challenge they need to improve and succeed.

Ruinous Empathy happens when managers and colleagues avoid giving the feedback people need to improve because they don’t want to create tension or discomfort. It’s like the well-meaning parent who can’t bear to discipline their kids — they end up inadvertently ruining the employee’s chance of success and the entire team.

@radicalcandorofficial We’re good coworkers! 🧡 #radicalcandor #funny #fyp #workplacehumor #workplace #carepersonally #challengedirectly ♬ Cena Engraçada e Inusitada de 3 Minutos – HarmonicoHCO

As a leader, you can teach folks how to show empathy in the workplace by using the principles of Radical Candor to improve your team’s connection. This shows teams how to pair empathy in the workplace with action and ensure that folks are able to build deeper, more meaningful professional relationships. 

First, let’s dive into what empathy in the workplace is, what it looks like, and how to improve empathy across your teams, whether in-person, hybrid, or remote.

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What is empathy in the workplace?

Empathy in the workplace is an essential component of building good work relationships and fostering effective communication in the workplace. Empathy in the workplace involves:

  • Putting yourself in your colleagues’ shoes and acknowledging their feelings and concerns. This allows you to better understand their perspective and respond with compassion.
  • Celebrating the diversity of your team and respecting the unique contributions everyone brings. Valuing differences in backgrounds and viewpoints creates a more inclusive environment.
  • Actively listening to and appreciating diverse perspectives, even when they challenge your own assumptions. This cultural empathy helps prevent misunderstandings and builds stronger connections.

Empathy and emotional intelligence are key drivers of effective workplace communication. An environment where discussing and acknowledging emotions is normalized is crucial for developing these skills. This openness helps prevent misunderstandings and builds stronger, more empathetic connections among colleagues.

These skills are vital for navigating complex interpersonal dynamics, fostering deeper connections, and communicating more effectively. It’s not enough to just have empathy — you also need to take action and turn that empathy into compassion.

Ultimately, a workplace that values emotional expression and support is one where individuals feel truly understood and valued. This is fundamental for team cohesion, effective collaboration, and overall job satisfaction.

Examples of Empathy In the Workplace

What Is Empathy In the Workplace? (Not to Be Confused with Ruinous Empathy) empathy in the workplace,Why Empathy Is Important In the Workplace

Showing empathy and respect for your colleagues is essential for creating a supportive work environment. When you put yourself in your coworkers’ shoes and acknowledge their feelings and concerns, it helps build trust, understanding, and stronger relationships.

Celebrating diversity and valuing everyone’s contributions, regardless of their role, are also examples of empathy in the workplace. Remember, it’s not enough to just have empathy — you also need to take action and turn that empathy into compassion. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Checking in with colleagues: During the pandemic people learned to genuinely ask “How are you?” and listen to the response, not just as a formality.
  • Understanding personal circumstances: Recognizing that employees have lives outside of work and may be dealing with personal challenges that affect their work.
  • Providing support during difficult times: Offering resources or flexibility to employees going through tough situations, whether work-related or personal.
  • Active listening: Truly hearing what employees are saying, without interrupting or immediately jumping to solutions.
  • Recognizing and validating emotions: Acknowledging when someone is upset, frustrated, or stressed, rather than dismissing their feelings.
  • Creating a psychologically safe environment: Fostering a culture where people feel comfortable sharing ideas and concerns without fear of ridicule or retribution.
  • Showing compassion for mistakes: Treating errors as learning opportunities rather than reasons for punishment.
  • Considering diverse perspectives: Taking the time to understand different viewpoints and experiences within the team.
  • Providing kind and clear feedback: Offering criticism in a way that is helpful and considerate of the recipient’s feelings.

Why Empathy is Important In the Workplace

On an episode of the Radical Candor podcast, Muriel Wilkins — a C-suite advisor, executive coach, host of the Harvard Business Review podcast, Coaching Real Leaders and co-author of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence — explains the importance of empathy in the workplace.

Wilkins cites empathy as the number one skill leaders need to succeed today and emphasizes several key points about the importance of empathy in leadership:

  • Changing Expectations: She notes that what people expect from their leaders today is very different from 10-15 years ago. There’s a higher demand for empathy that wasn’t as prevalent in the past.
  • Pandemic Impact: The COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to remote work increased the need for empathy. Leaders had to be more empathetic to motivate their teams during challenging times.
  • New Rules of Engagement: Empathy has become part of the expected “Rules of Engagement” in the workplace. It’s not just a nice-to-have, but an essential component of effective leadership.
  • Connection to Results: Wilkins challenges the notion that leaders must choose between driving results and being empathetic. She argues that you can’t get people to do more if you don’t approach them with empathy. In other words, empathy is crucial for achieving business objectives.
  • Human-Centric Decision Making: She gives an example of how even small decisions, like approving an expense report, should be approached with empathy and consideration for the human impact.
  • Behavioral Shift: Wilkins points out that becoming more empathetic often requires inner work and behavioral changes. It’s not something that can be switched on instantly.
  • Equity and Power Dynamics: In discussing diversity and equity initiatives, Wilkins implies that empathy is crucial for leaders to understand and address power imbalances in their organizations.
  • Response to Mistakes: When discussing how leaders should handle making mistakes, especially around sensitive issues, Wilkins emphasizes the importance of an empathetic response — acknowledging the error and learning from it.
  • Meeting People Where They Are: She suggests that true empathy in leadership involves “meeting everyone else where they are” rather than expecting others to rise to the leader’s level.

Wilkins presents empathy as a critical leadership skill that enables better connection with team members, more effective decision-making, and ultimately, better business outcomes. She views it not as a soft skill, but as an essential component of modern leadership that helps navigate complex workplace dynamics and expectations.

Benefits of Showing Empathy In the Workplace

What Is Empathy In the Workplace? (Not to Be Confused with Ruinous Empathy) empathy in the workplace,Why Empathy Is Important In the Workplace

Some business leaders mistakenly believe that empathy has nothing to do with effective leadership, or that good leaders are brutally honest with their employees. 

While honesty is a valuable trait in a leader, the truth is that good leaders know the importance of empathy; even when they’re delivering bad news

This sentiment is echoed by research conducted by Jamil Zaki, a research psychologist at Stanford University who, in an interview with the McKinsey group, explains that true empathy refers to ways we connect with other people’s emotions.” Zaki goes on to describe how, when training leaders, “one of the first hurdles I need to get over is this stereotype that empathy is too soft and squishy for the work environment.”

In reality, workplace empathy is a superpower that emboldens the efforts of leaders.

Some of the benefits of empathy in the workplace include: 

  • Employees are less likely to call in sick with stress-related illnesses;
  • Lower burnout rates at work;
  • Better morale among staff ;
  • Enhanced connection between team members, resulting in improved communication and collaboration.

Put simply, folks are more likely to work effectively when they empathize with one another. This can transform your organizational productivity and significantly reduce burnout, turnover rates, and quiet quitting

However, that doesn’t mean you should overlook issues or become overly familiar with your team. Rather, it means you should embrace an ethos of Radical Candor in order to avoid Ruinous Empathy (more on this later).

How to Show Empathy In the Workplace

@radicalcandorofficial Empathy in leadership: When I hear a team member is facing challenges outside of work, let’s remind ourselves that we’re all human. Supporting each other through life’s ups and downs is what being a boss is all about. Let’s grow and succeed together, always remembering to treat each other with humanity. 💼🧡💡 #Leadership #Empathy #TeamSupport #RadicalCandor #BossLife #WorkLifeBalance #healthyworkplace #worklife #FYP #leadership #CapCut ♬ original sound – Radical Candor

When someone on your team becomes upset, angry, or defensive, don’t ignore it or tell them not to take it personally. That emotion means they care about their work, and that’s a good thing. If you’re wondering how to show empathy in the workplace during an emotional reaction, your job is to react with compassion. 

Acknowledge the emotion by asking simple questions like “Tell me how you’re feeling right now” or “How would you like to proceed?” This helps move the person out of a threat response and into a more constructive, problem-solving mindset.

Normalizing the discussion and expression of emotions in the workplace is crucial. It helps prevent misunderstandings, builds trust and stronger connections between colleagues, and contributes to overall job satisfaction. An environment where people feel comfortable sharing their feelings is one where they feel truly valued and understood.

How to Avoid Ruinous Empathy 

Relating to your peers and making efforts to get to know your team can improve your leadership skills and help you create a better work environment. However, if you’re a people person, you may find it all too easy to slip into a style of leadership that actually resembles Ruinous Empathy. Ruinous Empathy happens when: 

  • You care about someone enough to be nice to them but fail to directly challenge them and bring out their best performance;
  • You praise your team but aren’t specific enough in your compliments. This leads to confusion and fails to show the person how to repeat their success.
  • You avoid uncomfortable conversations that may create tension, thus amplifying the issue at hand.

Ruinous Empathy can undermine your leadership and damage your team’s progress. This is a little bit like seeing someone with their shirt on backwards, but not telling them for fear that you might embarrass them. 

Clearly, they’ll be far more embarrassed if you let them go about their day and they only notice their mistake when they return home. This analogy can be a common experience for leaders who are new to showing empathy at work. 

To squash an unempathetic workplace culture and avoid Ruinous Empathy, consider offering feedback training for leaders. Radical Candor’s feedback keynotes, workshops, e-learning products, and more can help ensure you create and sustain a feedback culture that’s kind, clear, specific, and sincere.

Fostering Empathy On Remote & Hybrid Teams

Creating an empathetic, supportive environment should be among your top priorities as a leader trying to champion empathy in the workplace. However, this may be tricky if you have a remote team. You can overcome this distance and build relationships between remote and hybrid workers by:

  • Intentionally partnering with people on projects.
  • Developing your facilitation skills.
  • Becoming an active listener when on calls.
  • Setting up virtual team activities.
  • Enhancing your emotional intelligence through books and training courses.

These steps will improve your ability to connect with folks who work from home. This is crucial today, as more people are leaving the office behind in favor of remote or hybrid working. 

Empathizing with your team is the first step toward becoming an effective leader. You’re far more likely to embrace Radical Candor when you understand the needs of your team and are honest and caring with folks who need to be directly challenged through effective feedback. On the other hand, your employees will do their best work when they feel supported and cared for as human beings.

Viewed in this light, empathizing with others at work can be a powerful tool in your leadership arsenal and may help you get more from the team you work with by simply bringing your humanity to work.

Ready to get started? Book a call with Radical Candor today!

Indiana Lee is a freelance journalist specializing in business operations, leadership, and marketing. Her writing aims to provide insights that promote personal and organizational growth. Connect with her on LinkedIn

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