The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace
The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace
In our increasingly online world, having the ability to put yourself in another person's shoes is a critical skill, especially at work.
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The definition of 'empathy' is apparently more complex than I thought. However, in the context of the workplace, I believe the following suits best:
Empathy is the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.
In a fairly recent study, scientists found that they could actually stimulate affiliative emotions in their subjects. The bottom line of this research is that, quite possibly, empathy can be trained.
Now, I’m not a scientist, and the “training” is not really applicable in a normal office environment, but at the very least, this team proved that it can be done. And basically, they did this by encouraging positive emotions.
In their white paper, the team has a reference to the classic 80s film Blade Runner, which of course gives them an automatic +1 in my book. And when it happens in a scientific context, that's another +1. And I learn that ‘empathy’ is a crucial element in human relationships, at home or at work. That’s definitely another +1, making an easy +3 for the team.
So, let me reference Blade Runner, too, and talk about empathy a bit more.
Empathy in a galaxy far, far away
In Blade Runner, the replicants were tested on their affiliative emotions. A lack of empathy could give them away, causing them to be retired by the Blade Runners, a nasty business. Being a human with very poor empathy skills could also land you in some deep water.
Moving to another Universe, via Star Trek: TNG, Counselor Troi, half Betazoid, possesses the psionic ability to sense emotions, making her an extremely empathic person. This gives her the ability to ‘sense’ what the other person is feeling, and with regular ‘patients,’ this helps her to break down barriers quicker and help them better.
In the case of enemies, knowing whether they are sincere or lying can provide a huge tactical advantage.
The point here is that empathy is a fundamentally important part of interhuman relations, and being aware of this is a step in the right direction.
In a modern world
Of course, empathy has always been an important addition to your toolbox. A total lack of empathy, or affiliative emotions, kinda turns you into a psychopath; well, partly anyway.
You may also like: Who Could Be the Psychopath in Your Office?
Lack of empathy simply inhibits you from connecting with the person opposite you, at least on an emotional level. Luckily, there is still non-verbal communication, which has a strong effect on the way we perceive the person across from us and the meaning of their words.
Registering emotions helps, too, of course, but in a person-to-person situation there are other signals.
Not so online.
Now we use emoticons, or other shorthand to convey emotion. But a smiley face is still just a smiley face. Maybe you could do a winky smile, or even a blushing smile, but anything beyond that gets complicated. And it requires you to remember all the emoticons applicable for a certain emotion, or take the time to look them up every time you need one.
And even if you do nail it to your satisfaction, it still leaves room for interpretation.
Because you don’t actually see the person you’re talking to, often not even in real time, it can be difficult to read between the lines. Even on a video call it can be tricky, although less so.
When you translate this to the office and to our modern communication devices (i.e. email), it can even become somewhat dangerous, or at least damaging.
Whole departments can get at each others throats because of a wrongfully interpreted message. Escalation is never far away.
In a modern, 21st century company, (some) people try and replace email. We, in The Business, look at it as an old, limiting, and bloated communication tool. The biggest problem with email is its capacity to black hole knowledge. Sharing and storing information in your email client is a sure way of making sure nobody will ever find it.
So, we introduce an open online collaboration tool where everything gets tagged, shared, commented on, liked, and stored. This makes information highly findable for anybody who needs it, given everything is tagged correctly, of course.
Also, we aim to make the Digital Village a platform where all employees can feel at home, comfortable to pitch ideas, and ask “stupid” questions. Nobody gets burned simply by sticking their head above the fence.
At least, that’s what we aim for.
Here, I believe, empathy is at its most important. Here the difference between making somebody feel at ease and making them feel ashamed is a tremendously thin line.
And without proper “feels,” even the best of intentions can have a negative effect.
For some, picking up the phone, or sending that e-mail, or walking into the managers office are sheer feats of courage. Others don’t bat an eye.
Exposing one’s self on an open platform where even the CEO can see what you’re doing can be so daunting that many people simply won’t even try. Making them feel welcome and at ease takes some doing from the community, the community manager, and management, as well as colleagues.
Being sensitive enough to be able to emotionally connect with these people is a crucial skill indeed.
With the right support and understanding (i.e. empathy), many of these employees have an opportunity to flourish on the internal network(s). If they get burned badly by trolls, or insensitivity, they might never try again.
Wouldn’t it be great to send some colleagues on a training where they can learn empathy?
Originally publishing May 2014
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