Empathy at Work: Superpower or Kryptonite?

· by Alicia Leary

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About a year ago, HTI went through StrengthsFinder training. When my top strength came back as “empathy” I wasn’t surprised…but I also wasn’t thrilled.

Honestly, I didn’t want others to know it was my top strength because I was afraid that my compassionate nature would be taken advantage of. I felt vulnerable, like my kryptonite was displayed for all to see! When my coworkers started listing their top strengths in their email signatures, I could just imagine vendors seeing mine and thinking, “Empathy, huh? I’ll bet if I tell her that my cat died, she won’t fight a rate increase!” The more I looked into empathy, the more I realized that it truly is a strength – not a vulnerability – and how vital it is to an organization.

Empathy is the capacity to imagine oneself in the situation of another: experience the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person. Empathy does not equal sympathy, which is a reaction to the feelings and struggles of others. From a broad perspective – empathy helps the company understand what employees want. Effective empathetic leaders are able to better manage their employees.

Being empathetic doesn’t make you a pushover- you just have to use the skill effectively. It also isn’t a “fluffy” skill… it’s actually an extremely important part of leadership. Having empathy not only shows that you care, but gives the ability to be aware of others and quickly know how to interact with people. It also helps you understand how people feel and know what they want. An empathetic leader knows who they need to encourage to speak up in a meeting, and who prefers to take a stab at a big project on their own. Who craves public praise and recognition, and who prefers one on one conversations. We’re also pretty good at knowing when people are lying or hiding something.

Making your empathy “work” for you is all about how you choose to react and utilize the strength. This goes for any strength identified through StrengthsFinder.


Whether empathy is one of your natural strengths or not, you can reap the benefits of using empathy in the workplace by working to develop it. Your empathy can’t be an asset if you hide it away or misuse it (that’s the point where it becomes a vulnerability or liability rather than asset). Use these tips to further develop your empathy skills:

Listen actively. Pay attention to what the other person is saying in a conversation, not your own thoughts. Do not use the time they are speaking to think of what you’re going to say next or cut them off to make a point. Note their body language, tone of voice, and any deeper feelings behind their words. When it’s time to respond, do so respectfully by using proper non-verbal communication (eye contact, open body language) and avoiding judgement. Help them come to their own conclusions by asking open and thought provoking questions.

Be an objective observer. Put your viewpoint aside to see situations from others’ perspectives. Practice patience with your coworkers and employees.

Never project feelings on someone. Be mindful of how you phrase questions and comments. Instead of saying, “I heard about the new project you’re working on! Sounds like a lot of hard work and late nights!” try asking, “how are you feeling about the new project?” Sometimes people want to air out their true feelings, and are able to do so with open ended questions.

Acknowledge the other person’s perspective. You don’t have to agree with them, and doing this doesn’t make them right. But saying “I understand that you are frustrated” or “I see why you feel that way” helps them feel heard, which is something every employee wants from their leader.


Once you’ve developed your empathy skill, it’s important to continue to nurture it- and also protect it! People with naturally high levels of empathy are like sponges that absorb the feelings of others. Because this can be draining, empathetic people should consider these tips to continue to be able to use their empathy effectively as a strength:

Recharge throughout the day, disconnect. Don’t take it home with you. Being empathetic can weigh on you, so be sure to take time to recharge so that you can show up for your coworkers and employees. Remember, “one can not pour from an empty cup.” (would this be an article written by a millennial if I didn’t mention #selfcare?) Incorporate yoga, meditation, take a walk around the block.

Be mindful of what you’re consuming. It’s easy to get caught up in the news, but that can be draining for someone who is highly empathetic. Limit your time on social media and news sites to avoid getting bogged down with negativity. Swap a tragic news story for a cute animal video every now and then, and know when to put the phone down.

Set boundaries, know when to walk away. You don’t have to be everyone’s hero. It’s okay (and important) to set boundaries when you come across someone who constantly exudes negativity or pessimism. Just because you understand what someone is going through does not require you to be their therapist. Urge friends to talk with HR or seek professional help when it goes beyond your qualifications.

 

While empathy comes naturally to some, it may take practice for others. Simply being more intentional in the way you listen to and talk with your coworkers can help you be a more empathetic leader. You can also help others develop their empathy by acknowledging managers that go out of their way to be compassionate and encouraging employees to share their perspective (and in turn, actively listening to their thoughts). Spending time developing strengths you know less about will help you realize that they are your superpowers, not your kryptonite.