My blog

Can the companies become more empathetic?

If you can improve one thing about your corporate culture, there is a high chance that you will think about empathy. According to recent studies, about 97% of workers believe empathy is the primary driver of a healthy workplace culture, and 92% will look for organizations that demonstrate empathy when seeking a job, according to a 2021 survey by SHRM.

Yes, but… When organizations illusionally believe that they can build a culture of empathy, they usually underestimate the complexity of it. Even the common saying “I feel your pain” in the corporate world now sounds sarcastic and far from the initial idea of feeling the real pains of another person. Why so? Why is it so hard to move from promises to become more empathetic to the fundamental change in the workplace?

The reason is that our empathy has cornerstones in our childhood…

Empathy is our ability to sense the world like another person does. It is a prism when we clean up our own biased views and look around using other people's lenses. The benefits of empathy are enormous: from improving abilities to communicate well with others to effectively lead and inspire people around, and develop healthy, more compassionate personal relationships.

To understand how to learn it, the key question is why someone else has to get this extreme need to neglect their own lenses and try someone else’s. Well, here comes the sad truth - the need for it is very limited, almost non-existent in the world of adults.

Empathy is learned in early childhood as a sort of defense mechanism for a baby to understand how his mother (or other caregiver) is functioning. With a cold, neurotic, or exhausted mother, a child learns how to predict the mood and reaction to fulfill their own needs with minimum damage to their own psyche. Just imagine when an angry father yells at their children most of the time or an emotionless mother does not produce any smile. What is left to a child to survive? Yes, just to catch whatever slight change in the mood can be. Children learn to observe any movement of their caregivers and build a system to distinguish the tone of voice, sight of eyes, and pace of moves before it may hurt them.

Unfortunately, the most empathetic people faced trauma, psychological or even physical, in their early years. They experienced something that they could not process and needed to defend themselves from the possible damage. And later, even if they forget that experience, they will never unlearn the skills from that time.

The Internet proposes many pieces of advice to ‘boost’ your empathy, like “improve your listening skills” or “Cultivate compassion’. These ideas have nothing to do with reality. It is like asking a workaholic to take some rest or a stressed employee - to start thinking positively. It is not working this way!

It is a sad truth about empathy, but nonetheless, it is very hard but still possible to train being a grown-up. Here are a few ‘save’ options to help you do so:

  1. Reading novels and classics. Books have a unique capacity to show us another world that we never faced. Books enrich the emotions of others, are available and cheap, and can even entertain you to release stress.
  2. Good movies are another tool, especially for those who do not have hundreds of hours to read. Not “Barbie,” for sure, although even there, you can find the grains of others' feelings.
  3. Any reflection exercises, including diaries and talks with friends about how you and others may feel. In fact, a diary is one of the best tools to improve your maturity as a manager!
  4. High-quality group trainings. Please forget about 2 hours of online training on Udemy; you will get the information and insight, but not the skills. But working within a group under the supervision of a competent coach may help you a lot.
  5. Get along with a pet. Another living being around can help you at least to think about how it may feel being a different one.
  6. Children. The best one, however, I will not recommend having children 'just' to train your empathy. Please read a book instead or play with your cousins :)!

I believe that empathy can save the world from cruel wars or useless political conflicts. On a corporate level, empathetic managers can help their employees last a bit longer under the pressure of obligations and business limitations. In families, empathy may save partners from painful divorces and ruin the mental health of each other and kids around.

For that, we all have to make a step together: read a book instead of Instagram, call a friend instead of Netflix, and have a coffee with a colleague instead of a lengthy email…