empathy at work

If you were to skim through any articles about the traits of highly-effective people, chances are that showing empathy at work wouldn’t appear at the top of that list.

But in my view, empathy is the most important (and most needed) force in the workplace today.

In a faster-paced, evolving, and less predictable business environment, we are needing to work more closely together in order to stay ahead. Work is more human and more collaborative than ever before. And when you get a bunch of humans together, you need to build in space for understanding each other.

Second nature to humans, foreign in the workplace

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel what they are feeling. Dutch primatologist, Franz de Waal, is clear that “empathy is second nature to us”, and most of us use empathy in our personal lives every day. However, empathy has often been missing from the workplace.

This is because, historically, employment has been viewed in a very transactional way: the exchange of payment for services. Century-old management theories emphasize money as the sole motivator of human productivity. As a result, we’ve been persuaded to accept different behaviors in the workplace – ‘It’s not personal, it’s business!’

But, now we know that money isn’t enough to motivate meaningful work. Many recent studies highlight other factors such as autonomy, flexibility, and purpose and inclusion as important for attracting, engaging and retaining employees. These attributes are all grounded in individual relationships based on trust and respect – now we’re getting much more personal.

Century-old management theories emphasize money as the sole motivator of human productivity. That’s just not true.

Now, some people have – understandably – strayed away from using empathy at work. They fear it will make them a pushover. But empathy puts you in the strongest position when relating to others.

The good news is, research points to the importance of empathy in improving business outcomes. In 2010, doctors at a Boston hospital were trained for just three hours to be more empathetic towards their patients during their visits. After the training, their patients reported feeling more at ease, more cared for, and better understood.

Empathy is the skill that enables us to understand each other and adapt appropriately so interactions can be effective. When you employ empathy at work, you’ll be more aware, more present, and have a better understanding about how to work well with others.

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How empathy works

Human beings have specialized neurons – called mirror neurons – in our brains’ premotor cortex area. These neurons are activated not only when we feel an emotion, but also when we see someone else feeling it, although to a lesser degree so that we are not debilitated as a result and unable to act.

According to Dr. Helen Reiss, Harvard Medical School’s associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusett’s General Hospital, these reactions teach us and motivate us to act.

If the emotion we see and mimic is pain, then we learn to avoid what caused the pain as well as move to help whomever is in pain. This helping behavior not only makes us feel good but also drives us to inspire reciprocal behavior in others in case we might be the ones who suffer pain in the future.

Dr. Reiss describes this behavior as the basis for collaboration, cooperation and reciprocity in human relationships, which ultimately ensure the survival of our species.

While most people are innately empathetic, we may need to recognize and practice our empathy skills. Then we can consciously apply them in our professional lives, where many of us are not as used to behaving with empathy.

The three types of empathy

Empathy has three components: cognitive empathy, affective empathy, and the resulting action, also known as empathetic concern. These translate into three simple steps to practice – Think, Feel, and Do.

Cognitive empathy: Think

This is the thinking part, which is about perspective taking. We recognize that other people have their own way of seeing and thinking about the world, and use our imagination and curiosity to consider the other person’s point of view.

You do not have to agree with – just understand – their perspective.

Sometimes it takes serious mental effort to imagine how and why someone thinks that way.

Imagine you’re starting a video meeting with a team member. Think about what you know about this person and who they are. How do they view the world and the project you are working on together? What common ground connects you?

Affective empathy: Feel

This is the feeling part. It means being able to recognize the emotion the other person is feeling as well as tapping into the emotion and experiencing it with them. In light of this, relationships with team members are important to nurture.

Our own judgments can block our ability to connect with how others think or feel, especially if we might not react in the same way in the same situation. The more you can bring an open mind and put aside your own perspectives and reactions, the easier it will be to practice empathy.

Going back to our example of the video meeting with your coworker, begin by finding out how they are doing to get a sense of their emotional state. Look and listen carefully for all the visual and audible clues to be best able to tap into their experience. You can get more clues from someone’s body language, listening to voice tone and modulations as well as the words and phrases they use.

Deepen the discussion by asking thoughtful questions, restating what they’ve said to ensure you understood what they meant.

Empathetic concern: Do

Once you’ve recognized someone else’s perspectives and felt what they’re going through, how do you then act with empathetic concern as a result?

Empathy is applicable in every communication and exchange with your boss, your peers, and your team – in person and virtually, wherever they are, and in whatever medium you are using.

In our video call example, you might adjust your reactions to welcome and support the other person’s fullest participation. Help the other person feel safe. Emphasize that you understood their perspective so they know you heard them. Acknowledge their point of view in your response to confirm you value their contributions. If you are not sure about what they said or meant, ask.


As you become more sensitized to and aware of these empathy steps, you are purposefully deepening your relationship with and understanding of the person, and expanding your capacity to empathize.

The more aware and skilled you are at practising empathy in the workplace, the more effective your work interactions will become – communications will be smoother, collaboration more productive, and any conflict more easily resolved.

Why is empathy missing from work?