At its worst, life at work can feel like it’s all about bottom lines and firm handshakes, with no room for personal complexities. While everyone has ups and downs, and strengths and weaknesses, traditionally at work we were expected to check those emotions at the office door. However, workplace norms have evolved and progressive companies are making space for their employees to bring their whole selves to work. These companies are finding that making space for “soft” skills like empathy actually has a major impact on both profitability and their employees' career potential.
Sarah Larkin Birdsong, a licensed therapist and professional development consultant, has experienced both traditional and empathetic work environments. Early in her career she came face to face with a difficult, but common, reality: She loved the work she was doing, but communication breakdowns were getting in the way of her work.
“Time was being wasted because people lacked the tools to have difficult conversations, to give and receive feedback, and to internalize that feedback,” she said.
So she left. And went to work on a farm.
But that challenge—the fact that so much more seemed possible for teams and companies, if only people learned to work together productively—stayed with her. So she set out to figure out how teams could learn to work together better. She came back to the corporate world, and everything that went along with it.
Human Resources seemed like a logical starting point, but Sarah decided to take a different approach. She became a therapist.
You might be tempted to imagine Sarah sitting in a cozy armchair, gazing serenely at patients as they share their work woes. Stop. You’re more likely to find her sitting with a team in an open concept office, or collaborating with a group of employees around a conference room table. While she maintains a private practice, much of Sarah’s work as a therapist is done within companies, reshaping the world of work. She explains, “I think professional development and personal development are the same practice and set of skills.” She believes that “the workplace is underutilized as a space for self-actualization.”
Sarah works with her clients to develop skills that are vital to success in a world that’s made up of many different people, each with their own quirks and perspectives. These so-called soft skills, including empathy, compassion, and self-awareness, are fundamental to navigating the modern work world.
For a long time, the importance of these skills has been downplayed, but that has started to change. We’ve entered an era of “Chief Happiness Officers” and creative thinking exercises. Hiring managers are realizing that while hard skills (think coding and project management) are important, they can be taught. The soft skills that create the foundation for a team to work effectively are harder to find.
The thing is, Sarah believes you can teach the soft skills, too. Starting with empathy. And it’s a skill that’s worth learning; empathy has been forecasted as the skill to have in the year 2020—and one that can possibly net you a salary of more than $100,000.
So, what exactly is empathy? And why is it important at work? Sarah defines empathy as understanding and experiencing another person’s emotions while still maintaining discernment of your own. “You don’t need to agree with somebody, but you have to know where they’re coming from,” she says.
Writer and researcher Brené Brown defines it this way: “Empathy is not feeling for somebody, it’s feeling with them.” Sarah also references Brown’s video on the power of empathy as a great starter resource for learning about the practice of empathy.
At its heart, empathy can be divided into four attributes, as defined by Theresa Wiseman:
- Recognize and respect another person’s perspective as their truth
- Listen and speak from a place of non-judgment
- Recognize the emotions that go along with their perspective
- Communicate our understanding of their perspective and feelings
Communication is key to empathy, and—in one of those paradoxes that makes life what it is—real communication is next to impossible without empathy. Without the recognition that each person has their own truth, we’re likely to operate as if in a wind tunnel: sharing our own perspective without being able to hear or integrate any ideas or viewpoints that don't align with it.
When we really shift into a truly empathetic mode of communication everything gets better. Projects flow more smoothly. Products benefit from the inclusion of different perspectives. We actually hear our customers when they tell us what they need. People do better work, and they feel better about the work they do.
Empathy makes room for real people, for the ups and the downs, because we know that whatever we bring to the table will be heard and respected. So, how do you create a truly empathetic workplace? It’s a process.
To start, make creating an empathetic culture part of your work plan, either as a team or as a whole organization. Work with someone like an outside facilitator who can help identify gaps in your current communication style and skillset. Learn how to have difficult conversations, and then have them. Listen.
Another practice Sarah recommends is real check-ins. Before starting a meeting, make time to have an authentic check-in with your colleagues that includes issues that are impacting people personally. By starting meetings this way, Sarah noticed that, people were able to talk to each other, collaborate as human beings and work through disagreements, because they knew when someone was struggling.
Sarah realizes this kind of authenticity can be radical for some companies. “It’s the opposite of what we’ve always associated with productivity and professionalism,” she says. And it relies on something that so many of us are scared of when it comes to work: being vulnerable.
That’s why it’s so powerful, and important, that these practices are modeled at the highest level of an organization. Sarah remembers one company president she worked with, who was very intentional about modeling his own vulnerability. “It created a completely different work environment,” she says. “Vulnerability is connection and connection is power.”
And know this: you’re not alone. These changes and practices are part of a much bigger shift, away from our ideas of a traditional corporate culture, and towards a more inclusive (and empathetic) workplace. “These conversations are far-sighted,” says Sarah. “They’re looking at the long game rather than the short game. The short game I associate much more with traditional business: you come in, you do the work, and I don’t want to hear about your personal life.”
“At first that separation of personal and professional makes sense,” she says, “But more research is emerging that integrating the personal with the professional—having people bring more of themselves to work—has real benefits to that bottom line.”
The bottom line is still important (this is business, after all). But what company leaders are starting to realize is that profitability and growth are only improved by creating a kinder, more empathetic workplace. Companies like Facebook, Google and LinkedIn have embraced the role of empathy in business. These three companies are at the top of the most recent Empathy Global Index, compiled by UK-based consultancy The Empathy Business and published in the Harvard Business Review.
Empathy benefits companies both internally and externally. When you have empathy you can communicate with colleagues in a way that makes them feel heard and valued. In addition, it means you can really understand what your customers are saying, and bring their needs into your services or products. Empathy means you can put your ego aside and do your best work possible. That’s a win for everyone.
Illustration by Tin Nguyen