Given that one out of every three employees leaves their job for a more compassionate environment, empathy plays a crucial role in cultivating loyalty and engagement. For people who work in supporting roles, your effectiveness is defined by your ability to connect to your fellow employees, which includes your ability to listen. The biggest challenge here is that empathy is learned on an individual and a personal level and not from a handbook.

Empathy is a relatively recently discovered attribute and has emerged as a modern trend. Managers need to look beyond traditional strategies and develop the skills that are critical to success. Empathy is now appreciated as a vital leadership competency. Today’s leaders need to be person-focused in order to be able to relate to employees, teams, customers, and stakeholders.

What exactly is empathy, and how does it affect the growth and success of your organisation?

Defining empathy in the workplace

At its core, empathy means relating to the thoughts, experiences and feelings of others. While this may seem altruistic at first glance, empathy involves understanding what others want instead of what we perceive they require. Empathy prevents leaders from taking things for granted and proceeding with false or inadequate information about a situation. Sympathy involves a feeling of pity without necessarily listening to the other person’s feelings.

The empathiser’s feelings will depend on their previous similar experiences and their biases and prejudices that may influence their feeling towards the recipient. We may imagine ourselves in their position (a sign of healthy empathy) and subconsciously process our emotions based on another person’s information. Empathy describes the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, understand their needs, and become aware of their feelings.

While many organisations claim to cultivate an empathetic environment, their actions and communications often contradict their assertions. Corporate empathy refers to the company’s involvement in social and environmental outreach programmes, and employee empathy is what the workers experience on a day-to-day basis. An empathetic culture needs to be created from the top down.

The first step is for senior managers and leaders to recognise that successful organisations are built on a foundation of respect and understanding and not a ‘profits first’ attitude. Empathy is a crucial component of emotional intelligence and improves human interactions, communication, and positive outcomes. It can help address and resolve challenges that are holding your employees back from achieving success.

An empathetic approach encourages employees to try new things as there is reduced fear of blame. Managers can help improve employees who have demonstrated poor performance by addressing reasons that are holding them back. A culture of empathy allows you to adopt a problem-solving approach by diving deeper into situations and finding solutions.

Why do some organisations struggle with empathy?

There are several factors that often act as barriers to creating an empathetic culture. Here’s a closer look:


Many leaders hesitate to demonstrate empathy as they are uncomfortable with revealing (what they perceive as) vulnerability. They become apprehensive that connecting on a human level may encourage indiscipline, or they fear losing their authority.

Emotions are contagious

When an employee demonstrates an emotional or volatile response, we may tend to respond in kind instead of adopting a measured tone. You should take a few moments to centre yourself and give a mindful response instead of an automatic reaction.


Human beings have an ingrained propensity to empathise with their own social group or with people they know. When we look at the feelings of others, our ability to empathise is often tainted with our perceptions and biases. In practice, this is why minority employees often experience a lack of empathy from other employees. Corporate training programs can help address internal biases and improve selfawareness.

Learning empathy is a challenging process, and it is a complex trait to measure. The direct impact of empathy on the bottom line is difficult to track.

Strategies that help improve empathy

The following practical actions can help you develop your sense of empathy and relate to your co-workers.

  • Rethink how you listen and give your team your full attention.
  • Ask questions to confirm that you have understood, and interact with the employee to clarify the next course of action.
  • Put yourself in your employee’s shoes before you respond.
  • Avoid assuming the worst about people, and practise patience.
  • Cultivate positive relationships and avoid keeping your co-workers at arm’s length.

Workplace stress and problems come in different forms and sizes. Taking the time out to listen to your employees, understanding their position and relating to their feelings help establish trust and builds a culture of empathy.

Our consultants at ESN specialise in supporting your managers, leaders and teams in positive work practices. We are happy to leverage our considerable experience in the field of HR and psychology to help your organisation achieve its goals.

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