“Be curious, not judgemental.” Words of wisdom from one of today’s (fictional) leadership icons, Ted Lasso. When we are able to share our thoughts and feelings in a judgment-free workplace, we are experiencing one small facet of empathy in our professional lives.
Women of every generation have faced varying levels of empathy at work. From the top dog to the newest intern, we all deserve to feel like we have an emotional support system in our career.
Ashely Sieb, a Millennial Marketing and Communications manager and educator, suggests that business leaders should combine compassion and cognitive empathy (perspective-taking) to create a meaningful connection with their team. This can be hard for leadership when there is a generational gap between themselves and their employees.
“They’re trying to process how to be a leader or manager for people who operate so differently than them,” she said. “It takes a lot of unlearning and compassion on our [leadership’s] side for people who are of different generations to understand what they need to be their best selves.”
She pointed out that emotional maturity allows us to support the feelings of others without taking on those emotions.
“Empathy is something [that] people can so easily say and throw out and not know what it means,” Ashley said. “It is so important because it is a daily practice, like a sport, something that you train for. You train yourself in small moments when you try not to interject, when you lean into what people are saying and let it be about them. If you want to build a connected and inspired workplace, empathy is the bridge.”
In some cases, employers spend so much time telling the world that they practice empathy, they forget to put it into practice. They fail to learn about the cultures and experiences of their employees and the world surrounding them, and get stuck in the comfort bubble of their business.
“Empathy doesn’t stop after work hours. We need to ensure that we have learning opportunities through professional development along with team goals and individual goals which impact how people build empathy,” Tyra Baker, a Gen Z Student Success Coach at Purdue University, said.
In her experience, at a previous employer, her coworkers lack of empathy toward individuals of different cultures and socioeconomic status was glaringly obvious.
These coworkers failed to put forth effort into overcoming language and accessibility barriers, and even stooped to the level of making fun of people who were different from them.
“That job showed me how the medical field has a lot of work left to do to combat the prejudices and discriminatory actions, words, and behaviors that are embedded in that career field,” she said. “There is very little empathy if the patient isn’t easy to communicate with, convenient to transport, or of the same background…Empathy should’ve been: patient first with patience, flexibility, open-mindedness, problem-solving, internal team training, and formal & informal learning opportunities.”
Tyra stressed the importance of understanding another person’s perspective and considering what external factors might be impacting them. Without empathy, there is no collaboration or progress in a professional environment.
Supporting the emotions of others in the workplace is essential for their growth, employees need to feel safe and valued to be productive.
Tyra’s former manager was able to model true empathy when Tyra was breaking free of an unhealthy relationship. When things got scary, her boss stepped in and was a shoulder to lean on, as well as a problem solver.
“She responded with such kindness, gentleness, and even a bit of anger that showed me that she genuinely cared about my well-being and safety,” Tyra said. “It let me know that work wasn’t the big important thing but my well-being was more important.”
It is easy to understand someone’s situation when it is the same as our own, but the true test of empathy in leadership is connecting with employees that leaders do not have commonality with.
“Oftentimes, we only have empathy for people who are in situations that are most familiar to our own,” Ashley pointed out. “If we really do want to practice empathy, we need to lean into the discomfort of having empathy for all.”
Becca Tassone, a Gen X full-time corporate admin and part time paralegal, has found a career where her needs are put above the business model. Though her employers are from a different generation and demographic, they have been able to show her compassion from the start. When she was sick and hospitalized within her first few months of employment, she was given paid time off with no hassle. Even if she tried to work, her boss wouldn’t let her. They have even made special accommodations for her parenting needs.
Becca recounted times that she’s actually left positions due to a lack of empathy from management. She witnessed a corporate attempt to force an injured man into physical labor, refuse time off for a woman whose son had a terminal illness, and more. To her, health and happiness were more important than any job.
“It’s important to be cognizant of people's real life issues,” she said. “Life keeps happening on the daily and so often unexpected things come up.”
She expressed the importance of leadership letting employees own their positions, asking for their expertise in their field of experience. Empathy is demonstrated when we realize that the person who knows how to do a job at the highest level is the person doing that job right now.
“They know what they’re doing best, you need to listen to the people that are actually doing the job and be empathetic to their situation.”
Three women of different backgrounds in varying fields, all striving to create a more hospitable environment in their respective careers.
Ashley’s tips for using empathy as a tool for compassion:
Lean into the perspective thinking. Ask, “What is this experience like for you? How does this experience affect you? What else should I know about how this is influencing you?”
Be like Ted Lasso (remember him?) – be curious, not judgmental. Ask questions like,“That’s really interesting, can you tell me more about that?”
Don’t dismiss and devalue what the person is expressing by saying things like, “Things could be worse!”
Recognize emotions. Responses such as: “It sounds like you are feeling overwhelmed” or “It sounds like you’re upset” followed by questions to help guide the person through how they are feeling.
Lean into multiple realities. Your experience can be completely different from someone else’s and they are both valid!
Avoid labeling emotions as good or bad. Anger is often seen as a bad emotion, but some really amazing changes in the world have occurred because someone was really pissed off and did something about it.