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Empathy Goes a Long Towards a Happy Workplace

Empathy Goes a Long Way Towards a Happy Workplace

Nov. 3, 2021
A study shows that company leaders who express empathy help drive both employee engagement and innovation.

Many of us have at one time in our careers felt the need for our boss to just say, “I hear you.”

While we might have thought it was just some part of our personality that required that, studies have shown that human brains are, in fact, hardwired for empathy.

In research done by University of Virginia psychologist James A. Coan using MRIs to measure subject reactions to threats to themselves, as well as friends and strangers, people were empathetic to friends. Coan concludes that humans need to have friends and allies they can side with and see as being the same as themselves. 

Given the pandemic, the need for empathy has never been more important. A new study from Catalyst found that company leaders who show empathy help drive both employee engagement and innovation.  

Catalyst surveyed nearly 900 U.S. employees working across various industries to understand the effects of empathic leadership (in senior leaders and direct managers) on their experiences at work—especially in times of crisis. Employees with highly empathic senior leaders report higher levels of creativity (61%) and engagement (76%) than those with less empathic senior leaders (13% and 32% respectively).

"Empathy is a critical skill to successfully develop a connection and encourage collaboration in hybrid and remote workplaces," said Catalyst CEO  Lorraine Hariton. "This research provides a roadmap for senior leaders to reduce turnover and best position an organization and their employees for success through the pandemic and beyond."

The study defines empathy as the skill of (1) connecting with others to identify and understand their thoughts, perspectives, and emotions; and (2) demonstrating that understanding with intention, care, and concern.

In this study, researchers assessed empathy by asking respondents how often their manager and senior leaders displayed specific behaviors in their interactions. The behaviors measured correspond to the three facets of empathy: cognitive empathy, or engaging with employees to understand their thoughts, emotions, and perspectives; affective empathy, or sharing in or showing similarity to employees’ emotional states, and behavioral empathy, or actions that communicate and demonstrate a sense of empathy for employees.

Highlights of the survey’s findings reveal:

  • Empathic leaders (managers and senior leaders) respect employee life circumstances, support both life and work needs, and foster inclusion, compared to less empathic leaders.
  • Women of color with highly empathic senior leaders were less likely to report high levels of general workplace burnout than those with less empathic senior leaders.
  • Women of color with highly empathic senior leaders were less likely to report intending to leave their organization than those with less empathic senior leaders.
  • Women (across race and ethnicity) with highly empathic managers were less likely to report high levels of Covid-19 related workplace burnout than those with less empathic managers.

To help leaders who feel they need some assistance in showing empathy, the study offers these tips to leaders:

  • Imagine how your colleague is feeling from their unique perspective.
  • Feel concern and/or have similar emotions as your colleague.
  • Demonstrate active listening and a desire to understand more about your colleagues' feelings, experiences, or reactions.

"This study's focus on the business benefits of empathic leadership is more important than ever—especially in light of a pandemic and the 'Great Resignation.',” said the study’s author, Tara van Bommel. “Empathic leaders understand that empathy is not just a 'nice-to-have' or 'feel-good' quality. It is an essential skill that is immensely valuable in the future of work. The ability to connect deeply and understand unique perspectives and experiences is a skill that is not automatable and helps people navigate the uncertainty and disruption to come."

About the Author

Adrienne Selko | Senior Editor

 As Senior Editor for MH&L  Adrienne covers workforce, leadership and technology.


Email [email protected]


Adrienne Selko is also the senior editor at EHS Today and is a former editor of IndustryWeek. 

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