Can Empathy Be a Strength in the Workplace?

Showing empathy is a valuable workplace interpersonal skill that should be balanced with business needs.
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They say nothing’s personal in business. But since those of us who participate in business are all human beings, there’s no escaping those ever-present feelings, which can often get personal. Exercising empathy wisely can help you navigate those pesky feelings when they surface in the workplace -- and take you far in your career.

Strength or Distraction?

    We’ve come a long way since the time when corporate culture frowned upon expressing emotion at work. Along with a more welcoming attitude towards emotions (inasmuch as they don’t detract from productivity), we’ve also found that the ability to empathize, or relate to other people’s emotions, is a useful interpersonal skill. Like any workplace tool, though, empathy needs to be used in balance so as not to detract from productivity and business objectives.

A Valuable Skill

    Showing empathy has a lot of positive effects in the workplace. Empathizing with clients, customers, and co-workers helps you relate to them in a personal way. This helps them feel understood and valued. It also shows respect for how they feel and builds trust between you. When all the members of a department or company show empathy towards one another, it promotes unity and increases morale.

Empathy with Co-Workers

    When a co-worker shares her feelings with you, the easiest way to show empathy is through empathetic listening. To help your co-worker know she is heard, take a moment after she’s done sharing her feelings to restate the feeling you heard her mention with a simple statement, such as, “It sounds like you feel [state emotion].” Your co-worker should feel that she is understood and supported after you’ve restated her feelings one to three times during a conversation. Remember, though, there’s a fine line between being a support and a doormat. Allowing co-workers to vent for too long can drain you and distract you from your work, making you both less productive. Keep empathy balanced with productivity by reminding your co-workers of options they have to resolve their concerns so they will take action and not just dump their concerns on you.

Leading with Empathy

    Empathy can be tricky for team leaders and managers because you often need to set aside emotions to make business decisions. “Effective leadership requires toughness. You need be able to make the hard choices, especially when it comes to doing what is right for the business,” says John Badoni of Inc. magazine. Sometimes setting aside the personal implications of business decisions is difficult when you feel for someone else’s plight. But if you acknowledge the feelings that your team members express while keeping the focus on nonpersonal criteria for making business decisions, you’ll be able to keep empathy a strength in the workplace without detracting from business objectives.

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