Empathy in the workplace: Get it right when it matters most
As a manager, having a keen sense of empathy will help you to see the world from your employees’ eyes.…
Can you remember a time when you received feedback you didn’t like, and immediately went into defense mode? Or a time when you lashed out because you were disappointed by an employee’s behavior, damaging your relationship? In a recent survey on emotions in the workplace, we asked a group of managers:
You might have guessed it — 100% of respondents said YES.
We’re all human, and emotional responses are only natural. But the goal is for the passion people feel at work to contribute to your team’s success, not hinder it. Learning to manage emotions — both your employees’ and your own — will help you better support your team, and each person in it.
Modern workplace cultures encourage people to be themselves, because that’s the best way to get their strongest ideas to the table and unlock their potential. It also makes more space for emotions in the workplace. And that’s great, but it also means that learning to regulate emotions and handle others’ emotions are now key management skills. As Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy explain in their book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work:
“Beyond the leader-employee relationship, emotional dynamics affect our motivation, health, communication, decision making, and more. Yet most of us ignore these emotions. Why is it that when we think of professionalism, we immediately jump to the idea that we should suppress everything we feel?”
In the year since the pandemic and grand exodus from our offices to remote work, emotions have run high. People are overwhelmed, feeling alienated, on edge, and facing burnout. And it’s hard to gauge your team members’ emotions through a screen. Making space for emotions at work must be done responsibly, because emotions affect attitudes, team morale, employee engagement, and ultimately job performance.
We asked a group of managers about workplace emotion, and their answers were mostly negative:
Many people’s thoughts go to the negative when asked about emotions at work. But we also experience a lot of positive emotions at work, like:
All these emotions affect how people do their work, collaborate, and contribute to the goals of their team and organization. When you learn to tap into both the positive and the negative, you’re developing emotional intelligence. And that means you can start to see how human emotion can be used for better decision-making and results.
So how can you harness positive emotions and manage negative emotions on your team? Here we go over some tips and tactics for creating an emotional culture that benefits your team.
A clear set of guiding team principles helps everyone align on the shared values of the group and builds psychological safety. Schedule a meeting or create a space where team members can share ideas asynchronously. Have everyone share their input on post-its (try a virtual whiteboard), then cluster common points.
In action: You can refer to these principles when an emotional outburst causes conflict or blocks productivity. Or, they can encourage people to embrace and reinforce positive emotion. For example, “we lose as a team” could be brought up if a team member blames someone else for a mistake. “We win as a team” could support the decision to schedule a long lunch to celebrate an accomplishment.
The more one-on-one communication you have with each member of your team, the more you’ll be able to read their emotional expression. Plus, one-on-one meetings keep you up to date with what’s motivating employees or blocking their success, and their level of job satisfaction. These conversations help you uncover their emotions and offer a safe space for people to open up about their mental health or personal life.
Plan one-on-one agendas quickly and simply with the questions above and dozens of other suggested talking points in Officevibe’s one-on-one software. Agenda planning is shared with employees, so they can bring up their own thoughts or workplace feelings.
Peer-to-peer feedback, or 360 degree feedback, helps your team members understand what their colleagues appreciate most about their work. It also highlights areas where their peers see opportunities for them to grow. This alleviates people’s assumptions about how they’re perceived and empowers them to leverage their strengths and challenge themselves. Collect 360 degree feedback anonymously or not, and share the output in one-on-one meetings with each team member.
People management can be tough. According to our survey on managers’ emotional experience at work, negative feelings stem from:
Here are some tactics for managing your emotions in these situations.
It’s natural to feel some pressure as a manager, but this pressure often comes from within. Try empowering yourself instead of putting pressure on yourself. When you do that, you break down feelings of insecurity or imposter syndrome and make room for professional success.
Collect feedback from your team on an ongoing basis with an anonymous feedback tool like Officevibe. The software helps you get an honest look at how your team members feel about your leadership, and surface pain points so you can take action where they really need it.
Every manager faces difficult situations with employees, like addressing disruptive employee behavior or even letting someone go. It’s natural for you and your team member to have an emotional reaction when that happens, but it’ll be easier to handle a difficult conversation with tools for emotional regulation.
Radical Candor’s SBI Framework helps you discuss situations objectively. It’s particularly helpful when emotions run high during difficult conversations. Break down the information you need to share using the framework:
One of the toughest parts of management is acting as the go-between for your boss and your team. Priorities and approaches don’t always align, meaning you’ll need to advocate for your team and manage up.
Every manager has their own objectives, motivations, and challenges, and that can cause tension. Keep your cool with the tips outlined below.
If you didn’t succeed at controlling your reaction in a heated moment, take time to reflect on it and admit where you went wrong. It’s not too late to turn what happened into a learning moment, especially if this is a recurring behavior pattern for you.
On a team filled with passionate employees who give their all and show up as they are, emotions are to be expected. Tapping into those emotions and finding ways to make them productive is how the best managers drive team success.
Special thanks to our coaches Simon Chauvette, Dena Adriance, Laure Vessier, and Eric Charest for their thoughtful insights.
Would you be interested in receiving our newsletter directly in your inbox?