Research shows why empathy is critical in the workplace

In an increasingly complex world, leaders and employees alike are looking for ways to relate more positively to each other and their environment. To create strong teams, enable quality work and build a better workplace, there are certain skills that must be developed. One of those skills is empathy.

Empathy, while far from a revolutionary addition to the work world, is often overlooked in favor of more specific skills like communication or conflict management. However, according to research, empathy may be even more important — perhaps because it can and should be the basis for other elements of interpersonal development.

The research

According to the research firm Catalyst, "empathy" describes two things: understanding others' feelings and perspectives, and utilizing that interpersonal awareness when communicating or making decisions.

Empathy can be further divided into three categories: cognitive, affective and behavioral. Catalyst asked nearly 900 employees how often leaders displayed each type of empathy, described as follows:

  • Cognitive empathy: "Engaging with employees to understand their thoughts, emotions and perspectives."
  • Affective empathy: "Sharing in or showing similarity to employees' emotional states."
  • Behavioral empathy: "Actions that communicate and demonstrate a sense of empathy for employees."

After rating their leaders' empathy levels, respondents answered a series of questions regarding elements of their workplace, jobs satisfaction, engagement and more. Here are some of the findings most relevant to anyone trying to build a better team:

  • 61% of respondents with empathetic leaders reported always being innovative in the workplace. Meanwhile, only 13% of those with less empathetic leaders reported feeling innovative at work.
  • Only 32% of respondents with low-empathy leaders reported "often or always being engaged" at work. That number was 76% for those with high-empathy leaders.
  • 50% of respondents reported "often or always experiencing inclusion at work" when leaders were empathetic; only 17% said the same when leaders were less empathetic.
  • Only 18% of women of color reported interest in leaving an organization with highly empathetic leadership, while 33% reported the same when leadership did not display empathy.
Empathy is crucial in the workplace.Empathy is crucial in the workplace.

Building empathy

The takeaways from this research are clear: Empathy is not only vital to workplace success — it's vital to the support and empowerment of employees. Here are some tips for developing empathy in the workplace:

1) Don't seek perfection
According to Forbes, a degree in psychology isn't necessary to create an empathetic work environment. Instead, "check in, ask questions and take cues from the employee about how much they want to share." This enables leaders to approach situations on a more personal level, absolving them of the need to be mental health experts in every scenario.

2) Listen
Perhaps the most important element of empathy is the ability to listen. This often means taking a back seat in conversations, creating a safe space for employees to share their thoughts and feelings. When communication is open and honest, empathetic leaders can respond appropriately.

3) Don't impose limits
Empathy is not limited to the executive suite. Instead, empathetic leaders should encourage workers at all levels to follow their lead — not just to create a more comfortable, welcoming environment, but to give employees and management the chance to learn from one another.

As you continue to build and develop your team, keep in mind that any new candidate should display empathy from the very beginning. However, finding ways to identify this empathy isn't always easy, especially in an interview setting. YES Partners can help you select individuals who not only display empathy, but look forward to building it within your workplace. Click here to see just a few of the roles we've successfully placed.

Finding people is easy, but finding the RIGHT people is not. YES Partners helps companies FIND the right people for all company functions, across many industries.

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