Sign up to get the latest news and stories on the future of work.

Subscribe Search

Search form

This article was originally published under Jeff Miller's column “The Science of Workplace Motivation" on

One of the most important lessons I learned in my early days of teaching was the difference between sympathy and empathy. I'd taken a position at a school in Los Angeles. It was 1992. The school was just a few miles from the epicenter of the LA riots, which had taken place earlier the same year. The community was shattered. Many of my students lost their homes and some lost family to gang violence related to the riots. I felt so sad for these kids, and tried to take it easy on them in the classroom.

Until one day, when a fellow teacher pulled me aside and told me that my feeling sorry for these students wasn't doing them any good. And she was right. What they needed was not my sympathy, but my empathy. I needed to understand how they viewed school, how they viewed life and their future, and base my teaching on those understandings as best as I could though my life experience was much different.

The same goes for being a better leader and colleague in the working world -- studies show having empathy for employees can increase their satisfaction in the workplace. And, if you think your business practices empathy effectively, think again: less than 50 percent of employees in a recent Businessolver survey reported feeling that their companies were empathetic. As we move into the New Year, follow these steps to become a better practitioner of empathy and make it a fixture of your workplace.

Start with Yourself

Many have heard the old Native American proverb, “Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins." That's empathy -- seeking to understand someone else's perspective and how their experiences have shaped that perspective. It's not an easy thing to do in the office. As long as work is getting done, you might not even realize that your perspectives differ from the people around you.

Psychologists have a term for this: the false consensus effect. Put simply, because people are most familiar with their own beliefs and opinions, they tend to overestimate the number of people who share them. To begin understanding someone else's worldview, start with developing an awareness of the biases, opinions and experiences that shape your own.

Get to Know Your Employees

To practice empathy, you need to set aside your perspective and listen to the other person tell you about theirs. Listen carefully and ask thoughtful questions. In the office, you might ask 'What motivates you at work?' 'What do you enjoy about work?' 'What do you find frustrating?' and 'why' -- to figure out how another person experiences the workplace differently than you do.

For example, individuals experience stress very differently. In one study, women were more likely to experience physical symptoms of stress (headache or upset stomach) than their male counterparts. And often, what people find stressful is different. Men report feeling more stressed about work than women. While gender isn't an end-all indicator of how stress affects people, the study provides a glimpse at how widely the experience of an otherwise familiar feeling can vary.

Bring Empathy to the Office

Empathy should be an ongoing practice within an organization, and involves more of a mindset change than some kind of concrete program. That said, there are methods for jump-starting, or revitalizing, empathy within an organization.

Start with fostering understanding. At Cornerstone, we do an exercise called “Social Styles" where we have employees fill out surveys to understand how different personalities experience work. People are more complex than the broad categories used in this exercise (driver, amiable, analytical, expressive), but they give people a starting-point to understand themselves and the people around them. This can help managers be more effective mentors, which in turn fosters more engaged employees, according to Gallup's “State of the American Manager" study.

For more senior leadership, or larger companies where one-on-one leadership can be difficult to scale, consider learning more about groups within the organization. The stresses, priorities and concerns of your sales team might differ widely from the engineering and project management teams, for example. I regularly go on what I call “listening tours" at Cornerstone, where I meet with people at all levels, ask questions, and listen carefully to their answers.

By understanding the workplace through the eyes of others, research shows company leaders can lead to increased employee retention, productivity and happiness.

Photo: Creative Commons