There is a top soft skill that has helped me navigate my professional career in software development. I quickly realized that this ability not only aids me in developing and supporting great professional relationships, but if it is applied and cultivated at the team level, it has vast benefits. Extrapolating from the team to the organizational culture, this particular trait brings with it the inception of a healthy and, at the same time, productive culture. This skill is known as "empathy".
What is empathy?
In short, empathy is defined as the understanding of another person's thoughts and emotions in a particular situation. Interestingly, if we search the definition of the adjective "understanding," we will find the following result:
sympathetically aware of other people's feelings: tolerant and forgiving.
"People expect their doctor to be understanding."
synonyms: compassionate, sympathetic, sensitive, considerate, tender, kind, kindly, kind hearted, thoughtful, tolerant, patient, forbearing, lenient, merciful, forgiving, humane, human, good-natured, approachable, supportive, reassuring, tactful, diplomatic, perceptive, subtle, prudent
However, what is essential is that empathy differs from sympathy. In contrast to empathy, sympathy is when you are moved by the thoughts and feelings of another person but remain at an emotional distance.
There are three types of empathy:
- Emotional: When you have a feeling because someone else does. For example, crying while watching a dramatic movie scene.
- Cognitive: When you put yourself in someone else's shoes.
- Compassionate: When you see someone in need, you are taking action by offering your help.
Benefits of empathy in the workplace
The benefits of empathy in the workplace translate into different relationship dynamics. Starting with the relationship between the team members and the manager in relation to the team, interactions with a client, and ending with the executives towards the company employees dynamic.
Effective Communication: Empathy encourages honest communication, active listening, exposing ideas or concerns, and using feedback as a tool, all of which lead to fruitful communication.
Close Collaboration: When professionals understand each other's feelings and perspectives, a supportive environment is created where they can work together more cooperatively. Empathy shapes professional relationships and helps manage conflicts. The misunderstandings are greatly reduced, and a flow of collaboration begins to occur.
Finding Solutions: Encouraging others to share their insights can lead to faster mitigations, as one can discover the source of the problem or its different facets. Moreover, enforcing open communication and facing issues together eliminates the risk of concealed issues.
Growing Motivation : It is human nature to react positively to appreciation, understanding, and support. When we receive words of encouragement, praise, or other forms of appreciation, we tend to open up, feel safe, and become more proactive in our day-to-day responsibilities and interactions.
Improved Retention: Given that the highest-ranking form of marketing is still person-to-person promotion, when employees express their appreciation for the company they are working for, the company's market image certainly gains a boost. When we apply the magic of empathy in our client relationships, we gain client loyalty and recommendations.
Cultivating Leadership: Empathy is the basis for becoming a leader and helps intuitively understand how to best serve the role. A leader's understanding of how they can help employees and create an environment they can shine in is key to a successful team dynamic, which, of course, leads to higher productivity, quality deliverables, and strong interpersonal connection.
Displays of empathy
Having regular check-ins
It is of significant importance to have a pulse of what is going on with the ones around us. Maintaining regular communication in place will keep us engaged and up-to-date.
Example for the team: The daily scrum meeting is essentially a check-in; it keeps everybody updated on progress, but it is also a time for communicating issues and blockers and finding the best solutions together.
Example for the leader: The daily team syncs, the 1 × 1 meetings with the team members, an update sync with a client, and a feedback session are valid examples of checking in.
Teamwork in decision-making
A well-taken decision is insightful. Discussing the perspectives of those around us will give us a fuller picture of how a change could impact the environment or project. On top of that, a great "side-effect" is that people feel valued when their opinions are taken into consideration.
Example for the team: Brainstorming an implementation solution with a colleague, giving your insight to the project manager, or voicing your opinion are ways of being involved in decision-making.
Example for the leader: When having to make a decision that will greatly impact the employees, you will have to consider the well-being of all involved parties. Whether the change is at an organizational level or a project-related change, shifts occur constantly, and as part of change management, taking other people's input into account will eventually lead to an informed decision. Being open to others' perspectives and not considering only your unconsciously biased opinion will increase the well-being of everyone involved.
Teamwork in decision-making will provide the necessary platform to offer reassurance and manage any concerns that might occur along the way.
It is crucial to remind ourselves that every individual has unique needs, a life outside of work, and personal struggles. We should also consider that none of us can be at a 100% productivity level 100% of the time. We can be affected by personal problems, health issues, a decrease in motivation levels, or even the weather.
Example for the team: Having a support system is essential. Receiving a "leg-up" at the right time can make a difference, and it can be an opportunity for a collegial bond to be created or reinforced. Keeping in mind that a person will not always communicate when they are tired or overwhelmed, it is our ethical responsibility to check each other.
Example for the leader: A great leader constantly pays attention to employees' well-being. Well-being includes work-life balance, a mindfully calibrated workload, and attention to personal needs. When a person has a rough time, it is perfect to demonstrate empathy and support by offering guidance and an environment in which the person can overcome the struggle.
Showing understanding in communication
The way we communicate is an indicator of the level of empathy that we access. The choice of words and validation of another person's feelings will lead to a more open relationship. A person should not feel like they are unable to be open about their feelings, that showing emotions is unprofessional, and therefore, promoting emotional safety is mandatory.
Example for the team: Understanding in communication sounds something like: "I can relate to your situation", "I appreciate your skills", "I understand your problem; it is perfectly valid", and "I can help you." Even if you are just genuinely listening, it is a form of empathy. Having face-to-face interactions as often as possible helps deliver our messages in a complete form, as non-verbal cues can communicate more than words can on their own.
Example for the leader: At the company level, implementing communication best practices or having a verbal and non-verbal communication workshop will educate and encourage employees to communicate empathetically and efficiently.
Not everyone is the same
Each individual has a distinct personality, way of thinking, and working style. Getting to know each other at a more personal level will help us understand our emotions and reactions and find ways of communicating that are more efficient.
Example for the team: One person could require much reassurance and words of affirmation, while another person likes to work independently and prefers short and to-the-point conversations. The key is to adjust to each type of personality and learn about their wishes, strengths, and weaknesses.
Example for the leader: When it comes to the team, customizing the workload, tasks, and communication sessions for each team member is part of an empathetic leadership approach. When developing a client relationship, identifying the work style and preferences of a client is one of the first steps of collaboration, which will help adapt your approach to best fit the client.
Transparency and honesty
When we are not genuine, we hide our weaknesses and try to portray ourselves as a perfect version; we are unable to authentically connect to others. In addition, hiding mistakes or painting them as more positive than negative will not lead to solutions; in contrast, it will result in damaged trust.
Example for the team: Admitting mistakes and failures and showing vulnerability will draw you closer to the people around you by helping them relate to you. People who make mistakes are real people.
Example for the leader: Identifying, communicating, and mitigating risks in advance is the best approach. Honesty and transparency, exposing the reality of a situation, even if it is not the most positive, will make them trust you. Remember to propose solutions and reassurance when discussing a problem openly.
A kind word of appreciation
Too often, we forget about taking the time to celebrate our hard work, achievements, and positive traits that contribute to a successful collaboration. Making sure we do not take anyone for granted and exhibiting our gratitude towards others will strengthen our relationships.
Example for the team: Giving thanks, showing appreciation, and encouraging words are things that fuel us.
Example for the leader: Providing positive feedback, public praise, and thanking employees are some ways to make someone feel appreciated.
Working together towards a common goal
Offering help is one of the most important forms of empathy. Most often, we do not ask for help, as most of us fear seeming weak or bothering others. Learning to offer and accept help will increase collaboration; as a result, we will be less stressed and more connected, and the outputs could be of higher quality.
Example for the team: Helping others, as well as teamwork, will create a sense of community and trust. Mentoring a junior, providing assistance with a task, and knowledge sharing are all brilliant aiding tools.
Example for the leader: A leader's role is to serve the team, and one of their responsibilities is to check if anyone needs help and then provide that help through different means. Even if it surpasses the job description or the contractual duties, helping others will more often than not lead to significant interpersonal gains, as well as personal growth.
Displaying empathy at all levels of an organization promotes a healthy, positive, and productive work environment, and it goes as far as defining a company's culture.
Let us conclude with a quick incentive for thought: try to recall the most recent time you displayed empathy at the workplace. How did you feel? How did it affect other people or situations? How would it have been different if you had not shown empathy? By displaying empathy consistently, what do you feel you are building and promoting?