What if I told you that just cultivating more empathy in your everyday interactions at work could give your business real measurable value?
What comes to your mind? Maybe it sounds good in theory, but how does taking a definite compassionate stance about how others are feeling and what they’re experiencing provide concrete benefits? Isn’t that what respect, politeness, and kindness do?
If you’d asked me this question before I started working at Hotjar, I may have said there is none. Or maybe it’s just because I never thought much about what empathy means in the context of relationships in the workplace.
But working with the Hotjar team over the last few years (and guided by our company values) has shown me how powerful empathy is for both a company’s bottom line and the happiness and psychological safety of its team members.
The role of empathy in business
Typically, having an empathetic approach in business is focused on the customer experience, which makes sense. This is especially common in user experience or product design—both areas where understanding the customer’s point of view is vital to building a useful product.
But the other (often overlooked) side of the coin is extending that empathy to your team. That is, recognizing that your team members are just as human as your customers and you. And just like you, everyone at your workplace is impacted by circumstances outside of work and has personal passions and ambitions.
This means putting your people at the top of your priority list when it comes to making decisions and delegating tasks. When you do it consciously, guided by empathy, you may be surprised at how your team's morale and output strengthen.
Is an empathetic approach to business possible?
In my experience, empathy and drive are not mutually exclusive. Profitable businesses can also be empathetic businesses.
Showing empathy as a leader is a lot like coaching a sport. Your athletes put themselves on the line, and if you are a good coach, you find a way to support and encourage them without running them into the ground. It’s a fine balance, but it's highly effective.
According to a study by Catalyst, 76% of people with highly empathetic senior leaders are regularly engaged at work—compared to only 32% of people with less empathetic senior leaders.
Not only is empathy possible in business—it’s also a big factor in a company's success. Effective systems are built around the constraints they can lift and the constraints we need to design the system around. So, for maximum returns, leaders must learn to get the best out of their teams while considering individual circumstances.
Practical ways to show empathy in the workplace
Creating an empathetic workplace environment requires insight and effort, but it's not as difficult as it sounds. Here are three ways leaders can model empathy in the workplace.
1. Create an environment where it’s safe to fail
Do you create an environment where people feel safe to fail?
One way to show empathy is to consider how you would feel in a teammate’s position. For example, when asked to take risks and put yourself out there, you might feel anxious. A teammate doing the same is likely feeling anxious as well.
During a one-on-one meeting at Hotjar, an employee mentioned that a teammate seemed unwilling to take risks with a project they were working on.
The task was a bit ambiguous and low-stakes, which meant that creative suggestions were welcomed. Unfortunately, this information was never shared with the teammate. So rather than being able to express their creative freedom, the teammate asked for more detailed step-by-step instructions before even beginning the task.
I helped this team leader consider the situation empathetically. Because their teammate did not have all the information (they didn’t know that the project was a low-stakes gamble), they were likely more afraid to make mistakes. Their fear came from the ambiguity, not the opportunity.
Being empathetic teaches leaders to be transparent about their expectations in order for their teams to rise to the occasion. Leaders show empathy by creating a psychologically safe environment that allows people to be innovative without dreading failure.
2. Have a coaching mindset
A business coach once told me that the coach's role is part work, part therapy.
The coach explained that to help me reach my potential, they needed to be aware of my life circumstances, even if they didn’t necessarily fall into the sphere of business.
For example, issues or concerns with my partner or family would affect my performance. They also asked me to outline my professional and personal goals and ambitions—and to understand how the two were intertwined.
Leaders and their teams should have a similar relationship. While you don’t need the same level of information from your team members, working with them to align their personal and professional ambitions will naturally build trust and confidence.
Showing compassion and empathy helps you understand your teammates better, too. It also helps them push themselves, knowing they can count on your support, win or lose.
3. Be willing to bear the cost
Leading with empathy sometimes stalls work. Being empathetic can come at the cost of getting things done—but it’s shortsighted to view this as a net-negative situation.
For example, if someone on my team is having a personal crisis and needs to take two to three months off, it will cost the business. But investing in a teammate’s personal well-being fosters the trust and loyalty needed for them to do their best work. They will come back from their time off and do a great job, and it is still cheaper for the business than replacing a burnt-out employee who resigns.
Showing empathy in business is always worth it. Being ambivalent or leaning your focus too skewed toward the bottom line may get you to your initial targets quicker, but it will have a long tail of collateral damage. Your company will suffer poor talent retention and waste time and resources battling employee turnover.
In contrast, being an empathetic leader has been shown to increase innovation, efficiency, creativity, and company revenue.
Focus on the net effect by being an empathetic leader, even if you have to take a short-term hit on work deliverables. In the big picture, empathy always pays off for the customers, employees, and the company as a whole.
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