Survey Finds Empathy Boosts Productivity: How Do We Develop It?

By Adrian Gostick, Contributor
Empathy at work is no longer a “feel-good” element of leadership, but a strategic imperative finds a new survey. getty

Over the last 18 months, there’s been a buzzword bouncing around leadership circles: empathy.

Senior executives want more of it from their managers, employees want more of it from their companies. And a survey out today from Catalyst shows there’s a big business benefit from developing it.

Empathy is no longer a “feel-good” element of leadership, but a strategic imperative finds the Catalyst survey, which interviewed 900 US employees working across industries. Tara Van Bommel, PhD, statistician at Catalyst, said, “We found that empathy is an important driver of employee outcomes such as innovation, engagement, and inclusion—especially in times of crisis. In short, empathy is a must-have in today’s workplace.”

As background, empathy is defined by the researchers as the skill of connecting with others to understand their thoughts, perspectives and emotions with care and concern. Empathy is different than sympathy. Sympathy can create a disconnect between people: an “I’m strong, you’re weak. Let me help you” mindset. With empathy, you step into the shoes of another person and use that information to help guide your actions.

According to Catalyst, smart leaders are dealing with growing anxiety, burnout and the great resignation with more empathetic leadership such as offering more flexible and remote-work options and promises to prioritize racial equity. These leaders are especially hoping these steps will stanch the flow of women out of their organizations and boost inclusion for people of color. Consider that the study found that 33% of women of color with less empathic leaders are thinking about leaving their organizations, compared with only 18% of women of color who have highly empathic leaders.

Over the years, I’ve been executive coach to more than a few individuals who seemed to lack an empathy gene. In a first conversation with a director at a consumer products company, she bemoaned: “My assistant wants to get off early today because it’s Valentine’s Day. Can you believe it? She’s really upset.” When I asked why the assistant wanted the time off so desperately, the director didn’t know. She hadn’t asked.

As this director learned, our level of empathy is not set in stone. We can develop a more empathetic leadership style if we:

1)   Display Curiosity

A good starting point is learning to ask people who work for us a little more about their lives. Curiosity like this is about more than superficial things, it’s about finding out what’s really important to our team members. Developing genuine empathy also involves sincerely trying to understand the challenges that our people face. As it happens, it turns out the director’s assistant was a newlywed, and still a little insecure about her new relationship. She’d made big plans for Valentine’s Day and it was a huge deal to her to make it a success.

2)   Actively Listen

We all have biases, but through active listening we can expand our world view and become more empathetic to those around us. One colleague, a managing director of a law firm in New York City, told me that when the pandemic hit he announced to his entire firm: “We are in this together.” Yet after hearing a few associates’ stories over the coming days, he gathered his team again and apologized. He said, “You know what, we are in the same storm, but our boats are different. Some of you live in small apartments and have little children you are trying to help with their school work, some of us live in houses out of the city and are empty nesters. We are not sharing the same experience. From now on, we in leadership are going to try very hard to learn what each of you needs to be successful.”

3)   Walk In Their Shoes

In studying teams of various efficacies, I’ve never ceased to be amazed how little many leaders know about the challenges their people are wrestling with in their daily work. In part that’s because they don’t take the time to regularly ask about the difficulties their team members may be encountering. While most managers say they feel pretty well informed about the work their people are doing, when they take the time to actually sit with their people and observe, or better yet do their employees’ jobs alongside them for a while, they report how amazed they are about the things they discover. The best way to be truly empathetic is to roll up your sleeves and walk in their shoes.

With all of this talk of empathetic leadership, I acknowledge the pressures of management weigh heavily, and time is tight. Many managers are also far removed from where their people work day-to-day, so they aren’t privy to difficult conversations or the discussions team members have every day about the problems they’re encountering. They also may not perceive the personality tensions that can run through work areas from time to time. That’s why we leaders need to get out of our offices and away from our cushy lairs (with the burning incense and Enya on the headphones) and spend quality time with our people as they are working, and not just in meetings. As we interact with employees in this way, we can observe carefully and ask how things are really going—taking away layers of hierarchy until we are literally face-to-face with employees in their natural habitat. Think of it as a corporate safari.

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