Empathy is the capacity to imagine oneself in someone else’s position, comprehending their circumstances and the emotions they experience as a result. It is important to distinguish empathy from sympathy, which involves feeling compassion or sadness for others.

Emotional intelligence, also known as emotional quotient or EQ, measures our ability to perceive and understand the emotions of others. Essentially, emotional intelligence assesses our capacity to demonstrate empathy towards others and recognize the impact of our actions on them.

Empathy and emotional intelligence are vital skills to prioritize in the workplace. Why? Because a workforce that embodies empathy establishes a strong company culture, promotes high-performing teams, and achieves better overall outcomes. These skills enable teams to collaborate effectively and support each other’s success. Here are five reasons why both leaders and teams require empathy in the workplace to excel.

1. Our decisions are governed by our emotions

Our emotions have a significant impact on the choices we make on a daily basis, which may not come as a surprise. Despite our belief that our decisions are based on rational thinking, humans are fundamentally irrational beings. In the battle between logic and emotions, it is often our emotions that prevail.

A study conducted by Rice Business School provides an example of this phenomenon. When faced with complex decisions, our natural inclination is to gather information to make an informed choice. However, the process of decision-making is rarely as straightforward as determining right or wrong, good or bad. Our emotions interfere with this process. Research conducted by Rice shows that individuals in negative mindsets tend to focus more on seeking out information when making high-risk decisions. Conversely, optimistic decision-makers tend to do the opposite, as they believe the odds are in their favor and thus are less focused on gathering information, even in high-risk situations.

We won’t dwell on this point much longer, as it’s likely you, as a human, can recall numerous instances where your emotions have influenced your decisions. This is precisely why we emphasize the importance of empathy in the workplace as a prerequisite for high-performing teams. Empathy is a crucial human skill that enables leaders, supervisors, employees, and everyone else to understand one another and the motivations behind our actions.

By gaining a better understanding of our colleagues’ emotions and how those emotions drive their actions, we can make more intelligent decisions as a team regarding workflow, processes, and enhancing productivity. Essentially, empathy paves the way for innovation within our functions. However, there is one important consideration to keep in mind.

2. There’s an empathy gap in the modern workplace

To summarize a 2018 study on empathy at work, the findings reveal a disconnect between CEOs and employees regarding the presence of empathy in organizations. While 92% of CEOs believe their organizations are empathetic, only 50% of employees perceive their CEOs as empathetic. This issue extends beyond the C-suite, as Larry Senn’s concept of the shadow of a leader suggests that the behaviors and traits of top executives influence the rest of the organization. Managers and supervisors operating in this shadow often view these behaviors as a blueprint for success and perpetuate them throughout the organization. Consequently, CEOs lacking empathy contribute to a leadership chain that is disconnected from the emotional needs of the workforce.

However, there is a positive aspect to the study. It reveals that 68% of CEOs recognize the need for a change in the state of empathy at work. This statistic represents an increase of eight percentage points compared to a previous survey conducted a year earlier, indicating a significant shift in CEO priorities towards fostering empathy in the workplace.

3. Leaders who show empathy at work inspire stronger teams

Repeated studies consistently demonstrate that empathy in the workplace has a tangible impact on employee performance. Leaders who exhibit empathy are the most successful in engaging their teams. In a recent study, it was found that 87% of CEOs recognized a direct correlation between workplace empathy and business performance, productivity, retention, and overall business well-being.

Another survey conducted by Yale revealed that employees who rated their supervisors as having high emotional intelligence felt more connected to their work and found it more meaningful. Conversely, leaders with lower emotional intelligence had employees who experienced higher levels of burnout and, importantly, felt apprehensive about expressing their concerns.

Let’s further emphasize the significance of fear in the workplace and the importance of employee feedback. According to Gallup, managers account for at least 70% of the variation in employee engagement scores across business units. This makes the relationship between employees and their managers the most critical relationship that needs nurturing within a company, with empathy playing a crucial role. Due to the unequal power dynamic between managers and employees, the latter are at the mercy of the former when it comes to their level of engagement in their work.

When a manager lacks empathy and uses fear as a tool of leadership, their team’s engagement, performance, and potential for innovation suffer. The team members become focused on protecting themselves because they know that expressing their true feelings may lead to negative consequences. Consequently, a manager’s lack of empathy restricts the quality of feedback received from employees, thereby artificially limiting the company’s ability to make improvements to its processes, structure, and culture. Additionally, the emotional toll caused by fear in the workplace should not be overlooked.

4. The future of work demands empathetic leaders

As automation and technology continue to play a larger role in our professional lives, the human element of work is becoming increasingly significant. Face-to-face interactions are declining, and the need for centralized work locations is diminishing thanks to the portability of work enabled by technology.

Despite efforts to promote face-to-face interactions through open floor plan offices, the opposite effect is often observed. A study conducted by Harvard Business School on a Fortune 500 company revealed a 73% decrease in face-to-face employee interactions in open floor plan offices. Simultaneously, there was a 67% increase in the use of email and a 75% increase in the utilization of instant messaging tools among employees.

With fewer in-person interactions occurring in the workplace, there is greater pressure for those interactions to be meaningful and impactful. According to Deloitte Insights, empathy in the workplace will become a crucial leadership competency, serving as a counterbalance to the increasingly automated and technology-driven nature of work.

Deloitte Insights emphasizes the growing importance of skills such as empathy, communication, persuasion, personalized service, problem-solving, and strategic decision making. These skills are more valuable than ever before, as they complement the potential negative impacts of AI, cognitive computing, and robotics. While these powerful tools have the capacity to create new jobs, enhance productivity, and enable workers to focus on the human aspects of work, they also highlight the significance of human-centric abilities.

5. Empathy at work improves change readiness

The future of work, driven by technological advancements, relies on change. To introduce new tools and features that simplify our work lives, we must embrace changes in our workflows, processes, job roles, and even organizational structures. While the phrase “change is the new normal” may sound cliché in the business world, it reflects the undeniable reality of our operating environment.

However, change takes an emotional toll on employees. Significant organizational changes disrupt employees’ sense of security, leading them to question how these changes will impact their roles. To navigate through change successfully, leaders must address this question through clear and empathetic communication. The magnitude of the change determines the emotional response from employees, making it crucial for leaders to acknowledge and understand any resistance to the change. By taking responsibility for their role in the process, leaders can assist employees in adapting to the change more swiftly and prepare them for future change endeavors.


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