Bob’s Ramble: Empathy and Its Importance in the Workplace

Have you ever watched a professional golfer hit a ball into the water? It doesn’t happen that often but when it does, most of us have a couple of immediate reactions:

  1. Ouch
  2. Been there, done that

We generally feel badly for the golfer because we know how it feels and that means we are empathetic in that moment. But what does empathy mean in the workplace and how can we use it to our organization’s advantage?

Let’s start with a question: Who would you think is more empathetic to an employee that has been passed over for a promotion, another employee who was passed over before being promoted or one that wasn’t? Research by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) HR team shows that the average employee who was passed over and eventually got promoted is less empathetic than one who wasn’t passed over previously. Surprising?

Here’s another: Who would you think is more empathetic to someone being bullied, someone who was bullied him or herself or someone who wasn’t bullied? Surprisingly (at least to me), the person who was bullied previously is less empathetic than the person who wasn’t bullied.

As it turns out, if we have overcome a setback like bullying or being passed over, we build a virtual wall around that experience because we know one can overcome it, and thereby become less empathetic with those who experience it. In plain language, don’t seek empathy from someone who has been bullied and overcome it because she or he may subconsciously feel that you need to suck it up and manage your way through it – like they did.

Knowing that empathy doesn’t come easily for many can be instructional for us in the workforce. We inherently know that empathy (understanding how someone else is feeling) is very important for teaming, employee – supervisor relationships, effective communication and general wellbeing.

The key, according to HBR, is strong communication with each other, true active listening (ex. put the phone away, shut off the computer, maybe go for a walk and listen and talk with the person without distractions). To put ourselves in the place of the other person, empathy wise, we need to actually listen and understand the person’s perspective. It may help to understand that we aren’t necessarily prone to empathy if we’ve experienced similar events in our past.