Between 2022 and 2023, empathy in the workplace plummeted. According to Businessolver research, there was a 68% drop in individuals who agreed with the statement, “My organization is empathetic.”
This drop in empathy is concerning because over 80% of employees believe mutual empathy between leaders and employees increases efficiency, creativity, innovation, and company revenue, according to 2021 research.
Because business leaders recognize the importance of empathy, many strive to enhance their understanding of their team members’ emotions. However, when they fail to witness any positive changes in the workplace culture, they find themselves questioning what went awry. In many instances, the problem lies in these leaders practicing sympathy rather than empathy.
While sympathy and empathy are related, understanding the differences between these traits is critical for any leader who wants to create a culture of efficiency, creativity, and innovation.
In this article, learn how to distinguish between empathy and sympathy and how you can develop a more empathetic leadership style.
- Understanding the difference between sympathy vs. empathy is crucial for leaders who want to create a positive work environment.
- The difference between leaders who empathize vs. sympathize is a deeper understanding and willingness to connect beyond a surface level with others.
- 90% of U.S. workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction.
- According to Dr. Brené Brown, “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”
What’s the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy?
Empathy is understanding and feeling what someone else is going through as if you were in their shoes. On the other hand, sympathy is simply an acknowledgment that someone is going through a tough time. You might show support, but you may not fully understand or feel their emotions yourself. Empathy goes beyond surface-level understanding and creates a deeper sense of connection, while sympathy expresses care and compassion without fully immersing oneself in the other person’s emotions.
Why Does Empathy Matter?
In 2021, the consulting company EY released research showing 90% of U.S. workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction.
EY Vice Chair Steve Payne explains, “Our research finds that empathy is not only a nice-to-have, but the glue and accelerant for business transformation in the next era of business. Empathy’s ability to create a culture of trust and innovation is unmatched, and this previously overlooked trait must be at the forefront of businesses across all industries.” In other words, empathy is a vital component of a successful work culture.
Here are five reasons that answer the question, “Why is empathy important?”:
- Employee engagement and productivity: Empathetic leaders have the ability to understand the needs and concerns of their employees. This increases employee engagement, motivation, and productivity, as employees feel valued and cared for. In fact, 77 percent of workers would consider longer hours if their employer was empathetic, showing that workers are willing to work hard for organizations that support them.
- Effective communication and collaboration: Empathy enables leaders to listen actively and understand different perspectives, facilitating effective communication and collaboration. By empathizing with their team members, leaders can build strong relationships, encourage open dialogue, and promote a culture of trust and cooperation.
- Conflict resolution and problem-solving: Empathetic leaders are skilled at resolving conflicts and addressing problems. They can understand the underlying emotions and motivations of individuals involved, facilitating constructive dialogue and finding mutually beneficial solutions.
- Talent attraction and retention: In today’s competitive job market, employees seek organizations with empathetic leaders who genuinely care about their well-being. In fact, 92 percent of team members would be more likely to stay with their company if business leaders empathized with their needs and 82 percent of people would leave their current job for a more empathetic work culture.
Why Isn’t Sympathy Enough?
“Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”Brené Brown
While sympathetic leaders might give a kind response to someone going through a tough time, if they aren’t able to feel empathy for the person, they aren’t able to experience a connection to the situation. Leading empathy researcher Brené Brown says, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”
An empathetic leader shows they’re willing to connect with the person they’re speaking with. Instead of simply expressing support, they provide tangible support.
Example of Sympathetic vs. Empathetic Leadership
Imagine an employee has a sick child at home. The employee mentions to their boss that they have been unable to get much sleep for the past few days because their child has needed care throughout the night.
A sympathetic leader might respond: “Having sick kids sounds tough. I’m sorry you’re experiencing that. But at least you don’t have to prepare a presentation for an important client this week! I’ve been working myself to the bone trying to get this presentation done this week, so I’ve also barely been sleeping.”
Although the sympathetic leader shows some concern and is able to relate to the feeling of exhaustion that comes from missing sleep, they minimize the employee’s experience by making their own experience sound worse and by using the phrase “at least.” According to Brené Brown, an empathetic statement never includes the phrase “at least” because doing so dismisses the individual’s difficulty with the situation.
An empathetic leader might respond: “I know how difficult it is to meet deadlines while running on very little sleep. I’ve felt that exhaustion at times too. How can I support you with your current projects so you don’t burn out while trying to complete your work?”
The empathetic leader shows that they really understand what the employee is going through and reaches out to connect and support their team member.
How to Be a More Empathetic Leader
Moving beyond sympathy to develop empathy as a leader requires practice. Here’s a list of strategies that will help you improve your capacity for empathy:
1. Cultivate Curiosity
Develop a genuine curiosity about people’s experiences, beliefs, and backgrounds. Your curiosity can lead you to a greater understanding of a wide range or experiences, even experiences that are very different from your own.
According to writer and researcher Jeffrey Davis, When you approach interactions with curiosity and a desire to understand people on a human-to-human level, you’ll naturally begin to engage more deeply . . . this form of curiosity helps you become more interested in what another person has to say, even if you don’t share the same values or opinions.
Here are some strategies for cultivating greater curiosity about others:
- Keep an open mind: Embrace a mindset of openness and non-judgment when interacting with others. Let go of assumptions and preconceived notions, and be willing to learn and discover new perspectives.
- Step out of your comfort zone: Challenge yourself to engage with people with different interests, beliefs, or backgrounds. Participate in activities or events that expose you to new experiences and perspectives. Stepping outside of your comfort zone fosters curiosity and personal growth.
- Be a lifelong learner: Adopt a mindset of continuous learning and growth. Approach each interaction as an opportunity to learn something new and broaden your understanding of the world and the people around you.
- Embrace the unknown: Embrace the uncertainty and the unknown when exploring others’ stories and experiences. Curiosity thrives in discovering the unfamiliar and embracing the richness of human diversity.
2. Seek Diverse Perspectives
Dr. Raymond Mar, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, studies how reading fiction and other kinds of character-driven stories can help people better understand others and the world. “To understand stories, we have to understand characters, their motivations, interactions, reactions, and goals,” he says. Mar continues, “It’s possible that while understanding stories, we can improve our ability to understand real people in the real world at the same time.”
To do this, start exposing yourself to different cultures, viewpoints, and experiences. Read books, watch documentaries, or speak with people from diverse backgrounds to broaden your understanding and empathetic outlook.
Here’s a list of well-regarded resources that can broaden your perspective:
- The Moth: This podcast features real people sharing their personal stories, often highlighting diverse experiences and perspectives.
- Hidden Brain: In this podcast, the hosts explore the unconscious patterns that shape our thoughts, behaviors, and interactions, often touching on topics of diversity and social psychology.
- He Named Me Malala: This documentary tells the inspiring story of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist advocating for girls’ education and human rights.
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking: Written by Susan Cain, this book explores introversion and challenges societal norms around extroversion, shedding light on diverse personality traits.
- Educated: In this memoir, Tara Westover describes her journey from a strict and isolated upbringing to pursuing education and finding her voice.
3. Avoid Judgment
Researchers from Princeton University studied how quickly our brains form opinions of others. They found we make snap judgments within a tenth of a second. Unfortunately, when we judge others without understanding the full context behind their situation, we create barriers to connection and limit our ability to understand the person.
Psychology professor Sara Hodges explains, “As scientists, we second-guess our assumptions all the time, looking for alternative explanations. We need to do that as people, too.”
By second-guessing our assumptions and remaining open-minded, we allow people to feel understood on a deeper level.
Try these strategies to build a habit of open-mindedness:
- Increase self-awareness: Pay attention to your own judgments and biases. Recognize when you are making assumptions without knowing the full context.
- Challenge your beliefs: Question the beliefs and assumptions that underlie your judgments. Reflect on where these judgments come from and whether they are based on accurate information or stereotypes. Consider alternative perspectives and challenge your own biases.
- Delay judgment: Catch yourself when you feel the impulse to judge. Pause and remind yourself that you may not have the full picture or understanding of someone’s situation. Refrain from making snap judgments and instead seek more information and context.
- Seek common ground: Look for shared experiences or values. Finding common ground can foster understanding and connection, reducing the tendency to judge based on differences.
- Practice mindfulness: Cultivate mindfulness in your daily life. By being present and aware of your thoughts and emotions, you can catch judgmental tendencies and choose to respond with more openness and compassion.
4. Be an Active Listener
Active listening involves fully engaging with the speaker, both verbally and non-verbally, to understand their message. Active listeners don’t simply hear the words being said. They are present, attentive, and responsive to the speaker’s thoughts, feelings, and perspectives.
The more you practice active listening, the more empathy can grow. This is because active listening reduces misunderstandings, allows you to gather more information, and helps you gain a deeper understanding of the speaker’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
To be a more active listener, try this:
- Maintain eye contact: Maintain consistent eye contact with the person without staring excessively. This shows you are not distracted.
- Eliminate distractions: Don’t glance at your cell phone, remove your headphones, and avoid multitasking while listening to someone.
- Avoid interrupting: Let the other person finish what they’re saying before you begin speaking.
- Provide verbal and nonverbal feedback: Nodding, smiling, and using encouraging verbal cues like “I see” or “Go on” can signal that you are actively listening and encourage the speaker to continue.
- Ask clarifying questions: If something is unclear, ask open-ended questions to seek clarification.
5. Practice Perspective-Taking
You may not always have direct personal experience that relates to the experiences of those around you. But you can practice perspective-taking, or putting yourself in other people’s shoes, to empathize with others.
Psychology professor John Dovidio points out that how you take someone else’s perspective makes a difference. “When you ask me to imagine myself in another person’s position,” he says, “I may experience a lot of personal distress, which can interfere with prosocial behaviors.”
The most beneficial type of perspective-taking is other-oriented. Associate professor of psychology Sara Konrath explains that other-oriented perspective-taking is “a cognitive style of perspective-taking where someone imagines another person’s perspective, reads their emotions, and can understand them in general.”
Here are some ways to improve your ability to practice other-oriented perspective-taking:
- Active imagination: Use your imagination to visualize the situation from the other person’s perspective. Try to see the world through their eyes and imagine their emotions, thoughts, and challenges in that scenario.
- Listen and ask questions: Engage in open and non-judgmental conversations with others. Listen attentively to their stories, experiences, and perspectives. Ask questions to gain a deeper understanding of their thoughts and feelings.
- Seek feedback: Seek feedback from trusted individuals about how well you empathize or understand others’ perspectives. They can provide insights and help you identify areas for improvement.
- Volunteer or participate in community work: Get involved in activities or organizations that allow you to interact with diverse groups of people. This hands-on experience provides opportunities to interact with people you wouldn’t usually meet.
Develop a Growth Mindset Around Empathy
To remain empathetic over the long term, you’ll need to continue to push yourself and learn about empathy-building strategies. Psychology researcher at Harvard University Erika Weisz explains that it’s important to maintain a growth mindset if you want to continue building your capacity for empathy.
Weisz says, “People who believe that empathy can grow, try harder to empathize when it doesn’t come naturally to them, for instance, by empathizing with people who are unfamiliar to them or different than they are, compared to people who believe empathy is a stable trait.”
When you have a growth mindset surrounding empathy, you’ll be able to continuously improve your ability to connect to your employees and colleagues and avoid stagnation in your workplace culture.
Here are five books to add to your reading list that will help you build your capacity for empathy:
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential and Endangered by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz
- The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences by Helen Reiss
- The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World by Jamil Zaki
- Leading with Empathy: Understanding the Needs of Today’s Workforce by Gautham Pallapa
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- State of Workplace Empathy. (2023). Retrieved 26 May 2023, from https://www.businessolver.com/workplace-empathy/
- McWilliams, L. New EY Consulting survey confirms 90% of US workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction and 79% agree it decreases employee turnover. (2021). Retrieved 26 May 2023, from https://www.ey.com/en_us/news/2021/09/ey-empathy-in-business-survey
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