Empathy in the workplace: Get it right when it matters most

Written by: Stacy Pollack | Edited by: Alison Robins | Illustrated by: Officevibe team
Published on March 3, 2021 | Reading time: 8m

As a manager, having a keen sense of empathy will help you to see the world from your employees’ eyes. This in turn will give you a clearer vision of what they need from you to be successful. In today’s complex workforce, where multi-generations work together to tackle tough problems (like making it through a pandemic!), the ability to foster empathy is a coveted power skill for managers looking to help their teams thrive.

In fact, “87 percent of CEOs believe empathy has a substantial impact on their company’s financial performance”.

If you’re a manager, new or seasoned, taking the time to deliberately develop your empathy in the workplace will help you connect with your team and build stronger relationships at work. Empathy is the igniter for trust and connection, which are the two “must-haves” needed for every team to perform at their best.


But what is empathy anyway? 

When we perceive that someone in our environment is going through some kind of emotional distress, typically as humans we respond with empathy, sympathy, or compassion. These experiences all make up what we call emotional intelligence! To better understand how to respond with empathy, we must first understand the nuanced differences!  

  • Empathy“I understand you”. This is the ability to understand and internalize what another person is going through emotionally. It helps us gain insight into what drives their actions and behaviors. 
  • Sympathy — “I feel for you”. This is a heightened awareness of feeling for someone’s sorrow or concern. 
  • Compassion  — “I want to help you”. Feeling for someone with more distance from the emotion, still with a desire to take action and help alleviate a person’s pain.

While these are all important skills to master, empathy has been identified as one of today’s top power skills for managers around the world. For this article, we spoke to real managers to give us insights on how they use empathy to manage their team successfully.  

3 tips to develop your empathy in the workplace

As a manager, developing these skills should be top of mind if you want to create a team built on trust, connection, and open communication. Here are some tips to help you flex that empathy muscle!  

1. See things from your employee’s perspective by getting involved in their day 

While this may seem obvious, putting yourself in your team’s shoes will help you remember what their day-to-day struggles look and feel like. One of the quickest ways to build empathy for your team and understand what they need is to go through what they are going through. 

We spoke with Mario the manager who explained to us that his team was working slower than anticipated and not on schedule to submit a project. Before getting upset with them, he knew he needed to understand where they were coming from. 

🎙 “I would show up on-site as early as they did so that I could spend the day working with them. This helped me better understand their roadblocks so that I could help them find a solution. I knew that I would not be able to move the project along any quicker without really understanding what my team was going through.” – Mario

How to build your empathy in the workplace:  

  • Work on a difficult project with your team to understand where they need help and where challenges are coming up. 
  • If one of your teammates has a difficult stakeholder they work with, attend some of those meetings and help them produce strategies to successfully deal with that stakeholder. 
  • Make sure your employees always understand exactly what is being asked of them. Sometimes problems occur when the expectations are unclear, and employees don’t understand what they need to deliver.  

💡 Tip: Before drawing conclusions about someone’s behavior or outcomes, ask yourself if you’ve done enough to empathize, and consider alternative explanations. This is all part of taking on their perspective!  

2. Sharpen your active listening skills  

Active listening is a structured way of listening where you give the person in front of you your undivided attention while mirroring and validating what they say.  

Sam the manager explains that when he notices someone on his team acting out of the norm, he will often ask them questions to better understand what they are going through beyond work.  

🎙 “Once they start talking, I will simply listen. This helps them feel comfortable opening up and I often respond by letting them know that I am here to support them. I encourage them to take the time and space they need to express themselves and don’t judge or question their feelings.” – Sam 

To practice empathetic listening with your employees:  

  • Increase focus during your 1-on-1s by turning off all your notifications, putting your phone away, and zoning in on your employee.  
  • Actively listen to your employee by mirroring back what you’ve heard. Respond to their concerns with phrases like “I understand what you’re saying” or “that must be challenging for you”.  
  • Avoid arguing or putting up defences with your employees when they state a complaint or frustration in the workplace. Simply be there to hear them out, ask probing questions to better understand, and leave room for them to speak.  

This is especially important now as employees are living in unique situations and sentiments in their personal lives. It’s important for managers to be able to think beyond performance and recognize people’s struggles beyond the screen.  

Another great way to really listen to your employees is by seeking out feedback to really understand their pains. You can do this easily using Officevibe. We give managers autonomically generated insights on all your people to help flag issues as they arise so you can flex your empathy muscle where it matters most.  

Officevibe feedback feature, showing a feedback interaction between a team member and manager, about pain points

3. Ask yourself difficult questions  

Sometimes it can be hard to walk a mile in another person’s shoes when you’ve truly never had a similar experience. This is when asking yourself some tougher questions can help you shift your perspective and understand a situation from another angle.  

Jason the manager says that asking yourself tough questions is the basis of understanding how other people feel and can help you let down your defenses. He says: 

🎙 “Once you can understand how your team feels, they’ll open up to you easier as they trust that they can speak without repercussions. When I’m in defense mode, it’s hard to hear what they are saying, because I feel triggered. When I let my defense down and take their perspective, we get better work done together.”  – Jason   

Reflection questions to build empathy as a manager:  

  • How is what I am saying or doing as a manager going to affect my employees on the receiving end?  
  • How might I feel if what was happening to my employee was happening to me? 
  • How would I want to be treated if I was in the same scenario as my employee?  

These questions can help you dig deeper as a manager and help shift your perspective and foster healthy dialogues between you and your team. It’s also important to ask your employees what they need from you. Remember to ask how you can help and be mindful not to assume that you know what they need! This is all-important when developing your overall emotional intelligence.  

How empathy will help you overcome management challenges 

Empathy is not only good for the health of your employees, but also for the health of your company. There are many ways that fostering empathy as a manager can influence the culture of empathy on your team while also transforming your business. Let’s discuss a few!  

Business innovation 

Building products with empathy for the end-users in mind is needed for products to launch successfully. When empathy is built into your culture, it will transcend your business process. A Nielson analysis reports that ¾ products fail to launch successfully when empathy is not kept in mind!  

💡 Tip: Remove barriers that get in the way of your employees doing their best work and focusing on user needs! This can include things like lengthy processes, outdated hardware, or unnecessary administrative work that blocks their creative flow.  

Improvement in leadership  

In a recent study on empathy in the workplace, employees believe that their managers have the greatest impact on building a culture of empathy. Building your empathy will take your leadership skills to the next level!  

💡 Tip: Show them that you care about their wellbeing by being flexible when things in their personal life come up and prioritize work-life balance.  

Increased psychological safety 

Part of what builds psychological safety is both trust and feeling understood. When employees feel safe, they are more comfortable taking risks, making mistakes, and being vulnerable with their team. This in turn leads to more creative, innovative, and inclusive work.  

💡 Tip: When you disagree with an employee, before stating your disagreement, seek to understand them first by asking them open-ended questions. 

Developing empathy as a manager won’t be something you do overnight. Rather, by remaining consistent and always asking yourself what you can do to better help support and understand your employees, your efforts will permeate throughout the team to create a culture of empathy.


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Key points form article: work alongside your employees on projects they find difficult, don't jump to conclusions and rather ask questions, put yourself in their shoes, never assume, reflect on how your words and actions affect your employees