Empathy as a workplace superpower

In case I forget, I have to say the words “we’re living through a global pandemic” out loud daily. 

I’ve heard this moment we’re living through called “sensitive” or “unprecedented” or “difficult,” spoken with the same tone as those tear-jerker ASPCA commercials. On top of washing our hands every hour, we’re being called on to care about other people’s well-being. The Zoom Happy Hours have tapered off since COVID quarantine started, and we no longer start calls with the obligatory, “How’re ya holding up?” 

I miss going to an office space — not just for the change of scenery, but those watercooler conversations, lunch-time catch-ups, and meetings that get derailed to talk about that hilarious thing your kid did or your coworker’s band practice. I miss those conversations the most because those are the interactions that taught me the value of empathy as a workplace superpower. 

In a past life, I glorified the self-imposed “paying dues” stage of starting a new job, obsessed with perfection. My job was to drive business at any cost, which meant that I would exhaust myself and every resource at my disposal before asking for help out of fear of being wrong. 

Years later, I’d learn that not knowing everything and asking for help would make me better. Sharing stories and details about my life outside of work would make my peers trust me and relate to me. The value that I got from those interactions would keep me motivated and, ultimately, push me to proudly win for my team, not just for my pride.

I’ve outgrown being the kid who has to own the whole team project because I refuse to believe anyone else’s way could work.

While the workplace may not be a place for the touchy-feely stuff, the “greatest hits” of my career came from feelings — how people made me feel and vice versa: Running with someone else’s genius idea that I could help bring to life or making someone feel included, starting a challenging conversation, taking time for the small talk and, ultimately, contributing to a culture of collaboration and empathy.

Empathy is the company benefit that doesn’t usually get highlighted in the HR welcome handbook. It’s what happens when we:

Listen to what people want to say and respond with understanding, whether that’s an idea for a team project or something personal that helps us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It’s something so simple that so many of us forget.

Share and make people feel welcome to share. Our experiences overlap and compare in so many ways, and we feel less alone when parts of our experience sound like someone else’s. In company cultures where I felt other women were my competition, I got comfortable sharing my struggles and quickly learned that “fake it ‘till you make it” is not as productive as “this is hard for me too.” My less robotic (human) qualities made me an ally to anyone who also assumed I was their competition. 

Understand: Understanding is creativity-kindling: this was a newsflash for me: someone can have a valid opinion that is very different from my own. Two ideas don’t mean there isn’t space for both of us to be right. Or one could convert to the other side. Or, even better, we find how the ideas interlock and add value to each other. The projects I’m most proud of came from openness to take a half-baked idea and make it better with combined brainpower. 

Lift Others: Positive recognition goes such a long way. Motivate your peers, celebrate big and small milestones as a team, share personal experiences, and consider how your company celebrates wins to make people feel appreciated. 

Create change: Diversity and inclusion mean everyone. Create programs and practices that give employees a platform to share what’s essential to feeling valued. Amplify forums for diversity. Give people a safe space to share how the internal dynamic you’ve created makes them feel. Be open to letting feedback influence your company culture. 

Acknowledge unique perspectives: In a genuinely empathetic culture, no single person is right. Get comfortable with having the second-best idea in the room and get comfortable with being wrong. When I feel myself getting hell-bent on proving I’m right, I choose curiosity instead.

As soon as I was part of an empathetic company culture, I felt myself succeed. I was more proud of my ideas, and I stopped feeling a sense of competition to prove myself or fight to be the smartest person in the room. I had permission to be wrong. I had permission just to be a human being around the people with whom I spend the majority of my week. 

Our channels to create an empathetic environment may change under the current global circumstances, but it’s more important than ever for leaders to make empathy part of their company culture. Business is literally in people’s homes now. However, there’s still a significant risk of disengagement because we’re not physically present and because we’re in a “Zoom Zombie” state from being on calls all day.

Empathy is a superpower because it keeps your employees inspired, motivated, and eager to learn and collaborate. And ultimately, it’s what keeps your people happy and committed to your organization for the long haul. It allows employees to bring their whole selves to work and know that they will be met with understanding, curiosity, and may even incite change to make your company a better place for everyone. 

I work harder when I’m heard. When I’m heard, I’m engaged, and when I’m engaged, I produce my best output. Chances are, this formula applies to your team too.

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