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Empathy Is a Learnable Skill. Here’s How You Hone It

Empathy Is a Learnable Skill. Here’s How You Hone It

How do teams become greater than the sum of their parts?

They show empathy — a simple word but a complex idea that describes the multiple ways we connect with other people’s experiences. Empathy allows team members to relate to each other, putting themselves in their colleagues’ shoes to feel their emotions in a difficult situation.

According to Jamil Zaki, Stanford professor and author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World,” empathy is a learnable skill — one that teams should deploy in the working world to create effective collaboration. 

Learn more about Zaki’s insights from the science of empathy and check out our webinar with him for concrete strategies for bringing it into the workplace.

Empathy’s role in the workplace 

Some people doubt the role of empathy in the world of work, where it can be viewed as a weakness rather than a strength. That couldn’t be further from the truth. 

According to studies by Google, empathy fosters effective collaboration, more inclusive attitudes, and happier employees. Workers who view their organizations as empathetic often have increased morale and less stress, reducing turnover as a result. Empathy also helps create better leaders. With an empathetic mindset informing their management style, leaders can provide constructive feedback while addressing employee’s needs in a way that helps people grow. 

According to Businessolver’s 2018 State of Workplace Empathy report:

  • 87% of CEOs believe empathy helps support a company’s bottom line 
  • 90% of employees would be more loyal to an empathetic company
  • 81% of employees would work longer hours for an empathetic company

Empathy isn’t just fundamental for collaboration, it’s a competitive advantage.

3 empathy myths to debunk

While a common concept, empathy still faces quite a few misunderstandings. Some feel like the skill is unattainable or difficult to hone — which has sparked a few myths around empathy.

Here are three myths Zaki debunked:

Myth #1: Empathy is a trait 

Fact: Empathy is a mindset, not a personality trait. While our genes matter, our experiences do as well, and both of these factors come together to form our empathetic side. And empathy is something we can continue to hone — similar to working out and growing a muscle, you can grow your capacity for caring and understanding. You can do this through types of meditation; immersing yourselves in stories, novels, and plays; and cultivating diverse friendships. 

Myth #2: We can tell what our colleagues are going through 

Fact: Like a muscle, empathy can weaken when you don’t use it all the time. In the workplace in particular, empathy muscles can atrophy when people rise to power.

Leaders often attain the positions they have because they can understand and connect with people, yet by being in that position they can also lose a sense of empathy — creating what Zaki calls “A Power Paradox.” This paradox can result in empathetic blind spots among teams, with those at the top struggling to understand the experiences of others simply because they’ve lost the tools they need to gain perspective. To solve this paradox, leaders need to not only imagine someone else’s reality, they also need to learn about their reality. Stop making assumptions and start asking questions.

Myth #3: Empathy is a solo sport

Fact: People tend to copy the positive behaviors of those around them. Empathy is no exception, which means it lives on through cultures rather than a single person.  

Zaki worked with 857 seventh graders across four Bay Area middle schools to test this theory. His lab put these students in an empathic norms study, convincing them that empathy was popular, normal, and cool to see what would happen when this group formed a collective, positive opinion around it. When empathy became a social norm, people were that much more motivated to be empathetic, generating noticeable, widespread kind behavior.

When we celebrate empathetic behavior, it can become contagious.

The heart of the modern workplace 

The past year and a half completely changed the way empathy functions in the workplace. We’ve learned that our colleagues are so much more than coworkers, and that remaining connected and understanding one another is more important than ever before. 

In fact, we can use empathy to think about the future of work in a deeper way. As we examine what a hybrid reality looks like, social connection will soon become the heart of our workplaces — determining where, when, and how we interact with one another. 

Stay up to date on the latest thought leadership on the hybrid workforce — check out upcoming events in our Building Forward webinar series and read our blog on David Horsager’s eight-part framework for building trust.

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