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Why Empathy in the Workplace is Crucial for All


March 12, 2020  |  Laraine McKinnon


What would you say if you heard that 86% of employees strongly agree empathy is important at work, and that less than half that number strongly agree that they see it from their colleagues?

workplace culture report 2020

That’s one of the findings of our recent Workplace Culture Report 2020.

Empathy in the workplace

Empathy has become a popular topic in the workplace as organizations try to enhance collaboration and productivity. When colleagues develop heightened awareness, increased sensitivity, and the capacity to vicariously experience the emotional state of others, they build stronger relationships, more effectively manage miscommunication and conflict, and create products and services that serve a wider customer base.

This basic need for empathy is compounded by the diversity of our modern workplace. Each employee comes to the workplace with their pre-existing mindsets of the way things ‘should’ be based on their prior life experiences, and our workplaces are growing ever more diverse. In fact, more than half of the employees in our data set report working with five or more races, genders, and generations in their workteams.

Not surprisingly, that same diversity is not reflected in their executive team–meaning that executives likely have some blindspots.

Why your leaders need to learn empathy

Any leader in the organization would be well served by developing the skill of empathy. With a deep understanding of each individual on the team, they can better allocate projects and opportunities and motivate each person individually. In addition, sensing when someone is frustrated, disengaged, or understanding why someone is starting to be disruptive can help nip problems in the bud, creating a more consistent environment of cooperation, collaboration, and productivity.

Perhaps surprisingly, only 31% of employees say that managers in their organizations show empathy and curiosity towards their direct reports. Managers who don’t demonstrate empathy are less likely to be perceived as understanding employee concerns and more likely to be perceived as having selfish motives for their actions.

Likewise, employees report that when they work with colleagues who have less empathy or are less sensitive to social cues, employees are less likely to experience a respectful workplace, and less likely to feel safe speaking up.

Both of these observations have big implications: worsening attitudes within a team, where managers aren’t trusted or are seen as putting their own needs ahead of others, and persisting bad behaviors when employees experience bias, discrimination, or harassment and don’t feel they’re able to speak up.

Emtrain’s view is that empathy will be a key skill for company leaders this decade. The ability to effectively manage multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-gendered teams by being in tune with the people in your organization will be a critical element of future success.

This view is shared by LinkedIn, which opens their recently published Global Talent Trends 2020 report with “4 trends, 1 theme—empathy. As we enter the 2020s, empathy will reshape the way employers hire and retain talent. Companies will work to understand their talent more deeply than ever before in order to better serve them.”

Developing empathy as a key skill for employees

A component of empathy is social awareness: the ability to recognize and understand interpersonal and group dynamics, including interpreting the emotions of people with whom you interact. Employees report that some of their colleagues are challenged in this area, with a large number saying that co-workers struggle to recognize the social cues others give and the impact their words and actions have on others.

In fact, only 23% strongly agree that their coworkers can accurately pick up on the mood in a room, and only 46% strongly agree that their coworkers understand the impact that their words and behaviors have on those around them.

Thus, our research shows that significant portions of coworkers may be missing social awareness as a skill. We also found that people who have less-developed empathy, awareness of non-verbal communication and social skills can struggle to make good assessments of the motivations and emotional states of their colleagues—and to navigate conflict when it arises.

We’d suggest that organizations looking for top performance from their employee base consider doing a similar measure of their population. Once you know how many of your employees might be helped by increasing their social awareness and empathy skills, you can begin to implement some practical remedies.

The development of social awareness and the motivation to build social skills starts very simply: with curiosity about ourselves and our fellow humans. Self-awareness is a good beginning place for many. How do you approach different people? What makes you frustrated, or brings up your emotions in the workplace? Why might that be?

The next step is the curiosity of others. Why might a colleague be acting or reacting the way they are? What past experience might cause them to see a situation differently than you do? However, one’s curiosity must be tempered with respect. An employee who abruptly asks another employee a question about their heritage or life experience just to fulfill their own curiosity and quickly ‘move on’ is missing the point of genuinely getting to know someone. Curiosity is often a quiet endeavor, applied through active listening, becoming more attuned to someone’s words, mannerisms and actions, and occasionally asking open-ended questions like “tell me more about that?”

Building the skill of empathy

The good news is that multiple studies have shown that for many people, social skills may be learnable and therefore teachable. Organizations may want to roll out a series of curiosity exercises or provide training that focuses on awareness, curiosity, empathy and practical ways to start practicing these skills in the workplace.
To determine the need for increased empathy skills across your leadership and employee base, you might start with some questions such as:

  • How many different races, genders, generations are reflected in each level of your workforce?
  • Have stories of unconscious bias and life experiences been shared across your workforce to build empathy and motivation to filter out bias?
  • Do you think your employees can accurately “read” the mood in a room?
  • Do you believe most of your employees understand the impact of their actions?

A workforce with greater social intelligence will likely earn a competitive advantage. As talent pools grow more diverse, we’re working alongside colleagues from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Increased diversity has a positive effect, driving better decision making, and greater innovation, but it also demands greater awareness and skill from employees trying to navigate the complex social dynamics of the workplace. It also demands managers and executives who recognize that they have blind spots, and who, through authentic leadership, look to gain a better understanding of the broad range of talent in their organization that will deliver the success they want.

Note: The data provided in this blogpost is from Emtrain’s Workplace Culture Report 2020. Data was derived from over 40,000 employees at 125+ companies who completed mandatory Preventing Workplace Harassment training and voluntary Managing Unconscious Bias training in 3Q and 4Q 2019.

For more workplace culture statistics, download our Workplace Culture Report 2020.

For a Workbook to help you think through your workplace culture factors, see our Toxic Culture Symptoms Checklist.

Request a demo of our Inclusion and Belonging or Managing Unconscious Bias courses, designed to build curiosity, value differences and grow empathy.


diversity and inclusionempathyunconscious biasWorkplace Culture

Laraine McKinnon

Laraine is an advisor to Emtrain, and an unconscious bias expert. Laraine is a passionate supporter of diversity in the workplace; she focuses on blending behavioral science (managing unconscious bias, organizational behavior), big data and practical implementations to transform workplace cultures. Laraine has led high-performance customer success and sales teams at BlackRock and Barclays Global Investors, and founded strategic consulting firm LMC17.



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