Why is empathy important for your career

Medieval knights had the benefit of suits of armor to protect them at work. We dress for success but our up-to-date fashion does not protect us from the slings & arrows we may encounter in our workday. Nor do uniforms: in fact, if you wear a uniform, you may find yourself the target of frustration and anger. The bus driver deals with short-tempered commuters. Service staff in the restaurant deal with demanding customers. Customers deal with other customers – the pushy ones confront the polite ones.

In every form of interaction, there is a chance of misunderstanding, unmet expectations, or disappointment. There are situations that try us and people who frustrate us. We can maintain our personal balance in dealing with the situations and people by empathizing with them.

Empathy is a skill, much like any other. It may also be called a talent. What kind of skill? It’s a social skill. Some people are naturals; others appear somewhat clueless and need to learn. Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :  the capacity for this.”

“When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering,” says Matthieu Ricard (a French scientist, born 1946, who walked away from science in 1972 to devote his life to Buddhism.)

This example shows the wide sweep of empathy. Examples of empathy range from small gestures of everyday courtesy, to profound identification with a person or cause.

When we empathize with someone, we identify with that person. It’s different from sympathy. When we offer sympathy, we are separate. When we empathize, we are joined.

Regardless of where you work, you will come into contact with two categories of people: you co-workers and everyone else. You have an on-going relationship with your co-workers. You may have friendly connections with staff at the lunch counter, the coffee shop, your courier, the cleaning staff, suppliers, and your customers. Many people deal with customers in person, by phone, email, or all three.

Customer service reps get trained in how to respond to frustration, aggravation, and even insults. The language they use contains words of apology: “I’m sorry. I apologize.” They say, “I understand,” and “I would feel the same.” They offer support, reassurance, and solutions. It may be the 12th such problem they have encountered that day, but they communicate concern, and a willingness to help out.

Customer service reps know that concern is a key feature of service. They pay attention to the customer, show that they understand the issue, and offer solutions. What they are showing is empathy. You don’t have to agree. The essential element is to show that you are listening, and that you understand.

Empathy gets a lot of attention in today’s business world. Business leaders believe it is a valuable quality, which will improve the workplace, and as a result, help the business.

They are eager to climate of empathy in the workplace. One way of looking at it is, empathy opens doors that were previously shut tight. Empathy encourages communication; sparks creativity; and helps solve problems.

Empathy communicates respect and concern. Empathy requires time to pay attention to another person. Listening is one of the keys that unlock empathy. When you are with someone else, do you listen to them? What are your thoughts? Do you hear what they say, or are your thoughts on what to pick up for dinner, or which movie to order?

Empathy is the impetus for change. It is the force behind many non-profit organizations. With the growing sophistication of social media, we develop connections with people far away.

Empathy is based on knowledge – our awareness of another’s circumstances. Empathy can be a force for change on a small-scale or a large-scale social change. It enables an individual to form relationships. We now have the technology to form relationships with people thousands of miles away. We can see what they look like, and how they live. Our awareness of the reality of others’ lives is one thing. That’s knowledge. Our identification with them motivates us to act.

A brief search turns up many sites dedicated to making a difference, such as StartSomeGood, a crowd funding site “for non-profits, social entrepreneurs, and changemakers.” On this site, we learn “Empathy is so powerful that it can transform a faceless stranger, a statistic, into a unique individual with whom you now have a bond.” Corporations have their own initiatives, such as StartEmpathy at Ashoka’s Global Headquarters in Virginia. Crowd funding asks a little from many people. The combined efforts of many add up a significant resource.

Putting the spotlight on empathy marks a change in focus for workplace culture. Have you been told, “That’s business,” when you discussed a negative happening at work? It may have been that someone got the promotion you were expecting. Your company may be downsizing, or someone has been let go, seemingly for no reason. The for-profit business world has a reputation for paying attention only to the bottom line. Even non-profits, while they have high ideals, may not always carry their high ideals into their own workplaces.

People in the non-profit sector know how empathy helps them realize their goals of effecting change. It’s a powerful attribute. Even on a personal level, one individual can make a big difference. When many people join together, the effect can be earth-shaking.

Suppose you want to harness some of this power in your own life. If you are wondering about where you rate on the empathy scale, you can choose from many tests available online.

Another strategy is to watch empathy in action at your own workplace. Pay attention to how people interact. There may be one person who remembers everyone’s birthday. Someone else may cover for an absent employee on short notice. Watch not only what people do, but the reactions. Are there particular things that improve the morale of staff and the workplace climate? Do you have your own ideas of actions you could take?

You can practice to develop empathy. Social skills make relationships flow along smoothly. Much like learning to tip, or paying a compliment, at first, you may feel awkward. As you practice, you become more adept. Some people may be more empathetic, but you can learn, and you discover what feels natural for you.

There are ways to practice outside of work, and you may want to start get involved in a volunteer activity. The more opportunities you accept to encounter other people, learn bout them, and also learn about other cultures, the more you will develop your capacity for empathy. Empathy brings rewards, and in the business world, contributes to individual and group success.

There is a downside that must be recognized. We hear about work/life balance a lot. Bringing fun into the workplace and creating a climate of empathy are ways to create work/life balance. However, just as fun is not one person’s job at work, so too empathy can’t be one’s person’s response.

You may hear about a personal or work-related problem. You are not required to solve the problem on your own. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to contribute in some way to alleviate a problem. At one small office, one staff member lived in the vicinity of an explosion at a fuel depot. Staff members contributed as they could to helping out her and her family.

Being empathetic and compassionate are positive attributes: kindness, patience, and sensitivity bring positive benefits, but they can also sabotage your career. If you are in a helping profession, you run an even greater risk of feeling overwhelmed, either by the demands of your clients, you co-workers, or both. Here is where that suit of armor comes in handy!

If you are naturally empathetic, you risk taking on too much. Customer service reps hear problem after problem; complaint after complaint. They listen, but they also wear that suit of armor. They do hear insults. They do get abused. They are trained but they still need to protect themselves or their jobs would be impossible.

As a truly empathetic person, you must find a balance within yourself, or risk being burned out. Remember the reason why you are at work: your job. You have a job description. If you find you are really having difficulty, you can to back to your job description to help you set a boundary.

The powerful aspect of empathy plays a role, especially for an individual. For the empathetic person sees how effective he or she has been in dealing with tough people and tough situations. It can be difficult to stay back, or let other people handle things. If you are in this situation, you may feel you are losing by letting go. It can be a big change for you to step back, even if you need to do so to preserve you own health and well-being. Many people don’t know when to quit – they work too hard, and end up suffering, physically, mentally, or both. It’s the same with empathy. Empathy is good. Water is good too – but not if you have two feet of it in your basement.

When you are tuned in to others’ emotions, your own work can suffer. You may be distracted by people and situations that are not your concern. You may need to tune out, or turn the volume down, yet realize that you do not know how to do this. Your own feelings of concern for others blind you to your own needs. You may feel like helping, and at some point realize you have become the office “helper.” Here’s the reason why empathy is not just one person’s job: it’s too much for one person.

Empathy requires an action plan, the same as any other work-related initiative. If you are a business leader, and you want to climate of empathy in your workplace, realize that you need to provide support and resources. If these are not available, empathy can’t get established, and won’t play much of a role. It will remain a random, personal response, and it may be absent when it is needed most. People need to feel comfortable to respond appropriately in various situations. Those situations that require an empathetic response are often negative. It people are not prepared, and do not know how to respond, they may choose avoidance over empathy. This is not uncommon. “I just didn’t know what to say,” You hear. Or, “I didn’t know what to do.”

If you asked any supervisor, manager or leader what they wanted, they would say, “I want people to work together.” Some years ago a popular business buzzword was “synergy.”

It’s been awhile since we heard “synergy,” so we go back to Merriam-Webster. Synergy is “the increased effectiveness that results when two or more people or businesses work together.” That is exactly what we want! How do we get it? We’ve heard promoting empathy is one sure way.

It’s not entirely our fault we don’t empathize. At work, especially, many people are part-time, or on contract, or short-term, temporary workers. There may be few opportunities to interact with co-workers, or such interaction may have been discouraged. Also, when the society in general has a climate of loss – loss of jobs, loss of income, loss of skills, etc, people understandably focus on their own security. Factors in the workplace beyond make it difficult to empathize because we may not even know the people in the office.

A non-profit organization with many contract staff hired a consultant to conduct a survey of employee concerns, and then set-up a committee to work on specific projects. One project was an open house, which gave staff and board members an opportunity to work together promoting the organization and the work of its staff and volunteers. Securing funding was an on-going issue, and the open house gave the organization an opportunity to acknowledge the support of its funders. The same organization celebrated its 50th anniversary by publishing reflections from past presidents. Another initiative was to collect stories from members about their work, which were published in a series. The stories helped spread the word about the work of the organization, its members, and also created stronger bonds between staff and the members.

Your action plan for empathy at work—as with adding an element of fun to the workplace, creating a climate of empathy requires an understanding of the workplace culture, and choosing steps that will be acceptable to the staff. Make empathy visible. As with fun, staff needs to see empathy in action, and believe it is sincere, before they feel empowered to model this behavior.

For an individual, being empathetic helps built strong relationships. If you are not naturally empathetic, you can learn how to “turn it on.” If you are naturally empathetic, you may have to learn how to “turn it off.” Either way, you are learning how empathy can help contribute to your career success. You may still need that suit of armor, but it won’t have quite as many dents in it.

Can Akdeniz

Can Akdeniz is the author of seven books and founder of Business Hacker, a popular business blog. His books such as Go Nuts, Cool Boss, Happy Company and MBA 2.0 have changed how people think about business, productivity and work.