Empathy might seem out of place in the business world. In fact, for years we’ve had corporate coaches, gurus, and pundits telling us that the way to get to the top is by being a ruthless corporate killer. The reality is that the very attitude so long espoused by experts is far more likely to hurt your career than to help it. Empathy not only has a place in business, it actually takes center stage when it comes to rising to the top of the business world.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Given the collaborative team nature of most workplaces, it seems a little strange that so little emphasis has been put on empathy. Luckily for all of us, that attitude is changing, as more and more executives begin to recognize just how important the ability to relate to coworkers really is. And as hiring managers and executives grow to recognize the importance of empathy, they will increasingly look for employees that have this talent. Before you get led astray by the mantra of “looking out for number one”, here are four things you need to learn about empathy and how it can help your career.
1. Empathy Isn’t Just About One On One
Relating with your coworkers in one-on-one situations is important. Relating with your company and customers as a whole is just as important. What many people forget when talking about empathy is the idea of organizational empathy or group empathy. The ability to relate and understand the feelings of an entire organization is an incredibly powerful tool in any employee’s toolbox. It can help you understand how you fit into the company structure on a more in-depth level than an organizational chart ever could. Even more powerfully is to be able to put yourself into the shoes of your customers to understand how they relate to your organization.
More and more companies are beginning to focus on these group empathy skills. Positions like “Voice of Customer” are putting empathy front and center, and even positions that don’t directly interact with the end user could benefit from some group empathy. Being able to empathize with a group will help you immediately fit in with any company you work with, and will allow you to gain insight into how your product will eventually be used, which will lead to better products and better results.
Developing empathy with a group may seem difficult, but it’s no harder than developing one on one empathy. The easiest way to build group empathy is to try to put aside your preconceptions about the group in question and really listen. Pre-existing biases will keep you from fully listening and understanding, and eliminating them will make you much more empathic to the needs of groups.
2. Empathy Is Not Sympathy
Have you ever found yourself saying “I’m so sorry to hear that…” and then patting yourself on the back for showing great empathy? Hold off on the self-congratulations, because empathy and sympathy are not the same thing. Sympathy is the ability to feel the emotions of others. Empathy, meanwhile, is the ability to UNDERSTAND the emotions of others. It may seem like a very fine line, but in practice, it’s the difference between night and day.
Showing sympathy can be a great way to bond with others; however, that act of shared emotion limits your ability to understand what they are communicating in a more impartial manner. Empathy allows you to understand the feelings of others without succumbing to them yourself. It lets you remain supportive, but positive. This means commiserating, while keeping an open eye for solutions. Learning the difference between the two can allow you to be the perfect employee: able to feel for those around you, but also able to keep a clear head.
3. Empathy Makes You A Better Communicator
The ability to clearly convey ideas is tied to the ability to understand how your ideas are affecting the people you’re communicating to. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the ability to understand the emotions of those you are addressing is critical to being an effective communicator. Still, many people in the workforce – especially at the executive level – have problems speaking WITH people rather than speaking AT people.
Showing empathy in the way you communicate begins with paying attention. It requires you to stay focused on the words your conversation partner is saying, but also on their body language and other signs of emotion. Nonverbal communication can often be more revealing than verbal, and catching these subtle clues can give you much more insight, and make you much more empathic.
The executive takeaway here is if you want to be an empathic communicator, put down the smart phone, step away from the computer, and fully engage with the people you’re communicating with.
4. Empathy Can Be Learned…And Taught
One of the most important things to know about empathy is that like many emotional skills, it can be learned. Learning it can immediately make you one of your company’s most valuable employees. But the flip side to this is that empathy can be taught, and if you can teach it, you can become the most valuable employee at your company. Not only will you have all the benefits of being a highly empathic employee, you’ll be able to pass that valuable skill on to your coworkers, spreading the benefits of empathy around the company.
The key to learning to be better at empathy, and then at teaching others, is understanding where you need help. Ideas on where you need to improve can be found by doing self assessments, but to get real insight you might consider a professional assessment or EQ test. Once you understand where your gaps are and how to plug them, you can be confident knowing your career has nowhere to go but up.