Empathy tends to be one of the most underrated qualities in a professional
environment. As a recent survey by Ernst &
reveals, its capacity to improve office dynamics, employee satisfaction, and
organizational productivity is immense.
You’d be surprised at how many workplace disagreements boil down to avoiding
A while ago, I found that a part of our editorial process at
Draft.dev wasn’t working from a quality control
perspective. The editorial team knew we needed a fix, and my Director, a very
pragmatic, action-oriented person, came up with a solution and put it in
It was a good solution that some of the editors agreed with. Many of them,
however, weren’t comfortable as it added some new responsibilities to their
plate, and a couple had trouble following through with it.
When we analyzed the situation, we realized it wasn’t so much that the editors
didn’t want to fix the problem; it was that they had no say in how we fixed
This often happens when leaders try to solve company-wide issues with
directives sent from above — however apt and well-meaning those directives may
This was an important learning for me and the rest of the company. We’ve had
to rethink our decision-making process, our change management process, and our
communication practices to better serve our team.
In this piece, I’d like to explore more about how empathy can be a driving
force for productivity and positive work experiences within an organization.
I’ll also delve into how leaders can become more empathetic managers and
empower their employees to level up.
Empathetic vs. Other Leadership Styles
“To me, what I have sort of come to realize, what is the most innate in all
of us is that ability to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and
see the world the way they see it. That’s empathy.” - Satya Nadella, CEO,
Empathy is the ability to understand what the other person needs and being
conscious of their thoughts and feelings.
The opposite of an empathetic leader would be an autocratic one — a dictator
who makes all the decisions without feedback from their team. While
caricature-ish leaders of this sort do exist, in my experience, most managers
fall somewhere in between the two.
Some in this middle ground will try to be “empathetic” by expressing concern
for their colleagues or offering pleasantries without really asking after what
the problem is. That’s not empathy as much as sympathy. It’s not enough to
know that someone is dealing with a problem. Showing empathy is trying to
understand how you can make a difference. It has to matter to you that the
person resolves their problem.
Why Should It Matter?
There’s an idea that a team should be like a second family and colleagues
should aim for that level of rapport.
I don’t like this idea. And a lot of people who like clear boundaries between
their work and private lives will question the merits of being too involved in
team members’ personal problems.
So why should you do it?
The short answer is that it’ll help improve team performance. The long answer
is that productivity is directly linked to mental wellbeing, which can be affected by a
range of underlying factors.
As people juggle everything from ambition to workplace conflict, family
problems, and financial struggles, they can find it a challenge to be happy at
work. Empathy can be a powerful antidote to this by creating a positive
experience in their lives.
In a recent survey of U.S. employees by Catalyst, 76% of people reported feeling more
engaged at work and 86% as having a better work-life balance when their
leaders were empathetic.
More tangibly for an enterprise, it also affects employee retention and
innovation. 61% of employees with highly empathetic leaders reported always or
often being innovative at work compared to 13% without.
There’s a great story about how Steve Jobs had to become a more empathetic
leader before he achieved his biggest successes. His Co-Founder at Pixar, Ed
Catmull, once described him as a “boorish, brilliant, but emotionally tone-
deaf guy” who became a changed man after getting fired by Apple in 1985. To
paraphrase Catmull, after this all-time low, Jobs went from being “dismissive
and brusque” to treating people with empathy and respect. Over the next 20
years of his life, he founded NeXt and Pixar and returned to lead Apple —
arguably some of the most innovative and successful companies in American
In his famous commencement
address at Stanford, Jobs said “I’m convinced that the
only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did…Your work is going
to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is
to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to
love what you do.”
I’ve personally experienced the benefits of having an empathetic boss as well.
In 2018, I was CTO at the Graide Network. My job was to lead the engineering
team, but I noticed we had some issues with the operational processes, and I
wanted to help. I remember being nervous to ask my boss about it because I was
asking her to let me take on responsibilities completely outside of my usual
But instead of being cagey or protective of her turf, she was receptive and
empathetic. I spent six months on that project and the company used the
systems I put in place to scale from grading a few hundred articles a month to
tens of thousands a month.
If you’re in a workplace where you don’t feel heard and can’t contribute your
best, you’re not going to love the experience. This is why some of our editors
pushed back on the changes we made without consulting them, and it’s why we
made changes to involve them more directly in the future.
How to Be a More Empathetic Leader
Empathy is in part a genetic
trait, which means it comes more naturally to some than others. However,
that doesn’t mean you can’t practice and get better at it.
Here are a few techniques I’ve found helpful to train myself to be more
1. Listen and Observe
Active listening is one of the most useful skills you could ever pick up —
even more so than communication. You can navigate any conversation when you
understand where someone is really coming from.
What’s more, people feel respected when you make an effort to listen to them.
Managers should make it a point to look for the meaning behind people’s words
by paying attention to not only what’s being said, but also how it’s being
said, the feelings being shown, facial expressions, gestures, and body
This is an excellent way to empathize with someone even when they’re not being
straightforward with you. In fact, doing this and addressing their real
feelings will help cultivate trust to the point where they do feel comfortable
telling you what’s actually bothering them.
3. Go Out of Your Way to Help
Sometimes, just listening isn’t enough if you don’t often touch base with your
At Draft.dev, I frequently have one-on-ones with my employees which is a
chance to ask them how they’re feeling at work. If they’ve consistently missed
a KPI for a while or I sense that there’s something wrong, it feels good to
discuss it and help them through the problem.
This is also a good way to deal with stress and burnout. As a manager, if you
see a team member putting in more hours than they should, it’s a good idea to
encourage them to take a break while reassuring them that it won’t negatively
impact their career.
Other ways you can go the extra mile is by understanding the unique needs and
ambitions of each team member. This can mean assigning specific work projects
or catering to their life goals. A few years ago, at the Graide Network, one
of my team members came to me with what was an unusual request at the time —
to work remotely while she traveled the world. While it wasn’t something the
company had offered before, I said I’d be happy to put together a proposal and
speak to the CEO about it. It worked out and the fact that I was willing to go
to bat for her not only helped keep her around for longer, but also led to her
being more engaged at work.
4. Empower Others to Find the Solution
Sometimes, your employees will come to you with a persistent problem that they
can’t seem to solve. It’s tempting to try to solve the problem for the person,
but a better approach is to involve them more in the problem: show them the
constraints you’re facing and ask them to help guide you to a solution.
In other cases, the “problem under the problem” is fear or a lack of
confidence. Teammates that don’t feel empowered to solve their own problems
may only feel capable of complaining about things, and too fearful to step out
on a ledge and propose solutions. In this case, you have to build them up and
help them develop the confidence to solve problems independently.
Other times, the person is actually facing other stressors in their life that
are completely out of your control. For example, an employee may be having
financial issues, family issues, or health problems. While as their boss you
can’t fix those issues, you can try to be empathetic and understanding of the
situation. Give them more time and flexibility to handle their external issues
and try not to make work another stressor.
How Can the Organization Be More Empathetic?
As a founder or business leader, there are steps you can take to instill a
culture of empathy
throughout your organization.
Make empathy a key part of your company values. Let it permeate organizational
thinking and encourage your employees to make decisions from a place of
Empathy has helped us improved collaboration within the company, but also
helped us improve relationships with our clients. Our account managers make it
a point to try and understand what’s really behind client feedback and
objections. Over time, this has helped create a positive environment where our
clients trust us enough to tell us what’s really on their minds so that we can
brainstorm a solution together.
For me, empathy means treating people the way I’d like to be treated, and this
is important, because empathy is all about choice.
Are you willing to give trust without expecting it in return? To be patient
and look at a behavior beyond its face value? And to give people the space to
be wrong or less than transparent?
You have to be vulnerable to make these choices, but you will be happy you
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