Empathy is a popular word these days. As we navigate stressful times, the calls to cultivate greater understanding have increased. It’s nearly impossible to find a blog post written in the past year that doesn’t mention empathy as an essential practice for successful leaders, managers or employees.
I whole-heartedly appreciate the renewed emphasis on this quality, and it’s important to remember that empathy is more than a buzzword to focus on in difficult times. After all, it was only 2019 when the World Economic Forum highlighted a worrying decline in empathy in their Global Risks Report .
As we navigate today’s obstacles and eventually find ourselves on the other side of the pandemic, we need to treat empathy as more than a skill to check off an HR competency list. It is an ongoing practice that individuals should maintain to support positive workplace – and world – dynamics.
Why Empathy Matters Beyond the Pandemic
Our globe is more interconnected than ever. By respecting the perspectives of others, we build important social connections that allow us to function as a society. Think of the workplace as a microcosm of our broader world.
When employees recognize the feelings of their colleagues and connect in a way that respects the thoughts and emotions of others , they can:
- Communicate more effectively and efficiently,
- Build positive working relationships,
- Foster trust and
- Reduce conflict.
All of which contribute to better team and company performance.
Unpacking the Term “Empathy”
Empathy is an umbrella term that encompasses several types of understanding, and it’s important to recognize the differences within the categories. According to psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, there are three types :
- Cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand the way someone else thinks or processes information
- Emotional (or affective) empathy, which describes one’s ability to share the feelings of another person
- Compassionate (or empathic) empathy, which goes beyond understanding and sharing feelings and motivates us to act
When practicing empathy, remember that no one should be asked to “fix” something in someone else. While compassionate empathy may motivate a person to offer support, it shouldn’t lead to anyone overextending themselves. In fact, one study demonstrated that an overuse of emotional empathy can trigger a fight-or-flight response , which can increase stress hormones that have negative long-term health impacts.
The goal is not to ask someone to take on any more than they can or should. The objective is to seek understanding.
To help employees build skill in this area, I recommend starting with a focus on cognitive empathy. In doing so, staff may experience health-promoting physiological effects  while also building better working relationships.
Four Development Opportunities to Strengthen Cognitive Empathy
Start by focusing on four goals:
- Enhance self-awareness and celebrate differences
- Make the Platinum Rule an operating norm
- Practice self-reflection and recognizing bias
- Create opportunities for feedback
For Emergenetics Associates, pay attention to our bonus tips to expand on these concepts utilizing resources available from your Certification.
1. Enhance self-awareness and celebrate differences.
Before employees can build empathy, they need to understand their own preferences and recognize the many ways that people prefer to approach work. As a first step to promote understanding, consider utilizing assessment tools like the Emergenetics Profile and engaging in workshops  that provide frameworks to help attendees celebrate the ways people prefer to think and behave.
Emergenetics Associate Tip: Expand on your employees’ Profiles using the 3-2-1 Exercise to strengthen self-awareness. To enhance social awareness, encourage staff to share their insights with colleagues. When employees recognize the brilliances of their preferences and their counterparts’, they can begin to understand and honor the perspectives of others.
2. Make the Platinum Rule an operating norm.
When you treat others the way they want to be treated, you actively practice empathy while making work run much more smoothly. By connecting with others in a way that respects their preferences, we limit communication gaps and enhance efficiency. Encourage staff to pre-plan for meetings and presentations by considering what matters most to their counterparts. Also, I invite you to promote active listening in conversations to keep an ear out for the preferences of team members.
Emergenetics Associate Tip: Share the Platinum Rule exercise to help staff consider the viewpoints of their colleagues and proactively plan to address their needs. I also invite you to ask employees to use the same exercise after their conversations to identify opportunities for improvement.
3. Practice self-reflection and recognizing bias.
Because we don’t always realize the ways we interpret others’ behaviors, bias training can be a powerful tool to support cognitive empathy. Empower staff through specific trainings targeting bias as well as engaging individuals in self-reflection. Through an honest exploration of their actions and reactions, employees can uncover inherent motivations and recognize where judgments may stem from.
Emergenetics Associate Tip: As you host training sessions, consider referencing your Brainwork Made Easy handout from your Certification manual. There are elements within the handout that can help staff identify negative perceptions they may be harboring toward those who exhibit different preferences from their own. It can also provide ideas to help reframe those biases.
4. Create opportunities for feedback.
Coaching can help your employees get real-time practice understanding the perspectives of others. Create opportunities for staff to get feedback from managers, colleagues or direct reports through performance reviews, mentorship programs or peer coaching. In doing so, employees learn from one another and hear the perspectives of colleagues who are different from them.
Emergenetics Associate Tip: When pairing employees for coaching or mentorship programs, visit the Emergenetics+ portal to review their Profiles. By partnering staff with different preferences, employees can gain exposure to unique ways of thinking. To get started, try using mid-dyads so staff can connect on one shared Attribute and gain exposure to a non-preferred one. As employees get more comfortable, pair staff with diametrically opposed Profiles.
Empathy takes ongoing practice – and it will deliver benefits to you and your team. By starting with a focus on cognitive empathy, you can help employees thrive in times of challenge and build skills they need to support themselves, their colleagues and your organization well into the future.
Want to learn more about enhancing empathy and emotional intelligence in your organization? Reach out to our team by completing the form below or clicking here !