Workplace Empathy in the New Academic Year

If you have children of any age – or if you are a student or an educator yourself – the beginning of a new academic year always brings a new schedule, which itself brings new challenges, for the student and everyone else in your household. For many households, this is the first time a student has been in a “live, in-person” class for a long time. As much as many of us like to compartmentalize and keep our work and home life separate, the stresses that go along with these changes carry over into every area of our life, and can contribute to the culture of your team and your organization. And of course for some parents, this is the “finally, thank God” moment they’ve been waiting for for months and months. Even that huge relief can come with the renegotiating of schedules, figuring out how to get them to activities etc., all of which is still unsettling in different ways. So whether or not you are directly connected to the academic year, this is a good time to focus on empathy in the workplace.

Empathy in the workplace is also positively related to job performance. In a Center for Creative Leadership study of 6,731 managers in 38 countries, findings were consistent: those who practice empathetic leadership toward direct reports and/or were rated as empathetic by subordinates were viewed as better performers in their jobs by their own managers.

It’s important to remember the difference between sympathy and empathy, as they are often confused. Sympathy typically refers to feelings of pity for another person, without really understanding what it’s like to be in their situation. Empathy refers to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person. Empathy in the workplace is often more productive and supportive.

So how can we practice empathy in the workplace this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Take opportunities on a personal level to notice how you can practice empathy in meetings and/or personal interactions with colleagues and team members this week:

  1. Show sincere interest in others’ challenges, needs, and hopes. Seek understanding and ask open-ended questions to get a clearer sense of what the people around you are experiencing, even (and especially) if you’re not experiencing those things yourself.
  2. Demonstrate a willingness to help a team member with a personal problem. This doesn’t mean you need to get involved with their personal life; it could simply mean giving them the space and time they need – when they need it – to deal with what they have going on.
  3. Show compassion when other people disclose a personal loss or problem. You may not be able to relate to the specific details of their situation, but chances are you have experienced a personal loss of your own and can show genuine empathy for theirs.
  4. Take a few minutes to check in with each team member, and watch for signs of burnout. With the added stresses of the new academic year, team members may be working harder and at different times than they’ve been used to recently. Ask what they need, and if there are ways you can support that, do!
  5. Encourage genuine perspective-taking, talk about empathy, and practice listening skills in your team. These are all things that Building Bridges Leadership can facilitate or work with you on leading yourself. Contact us to set something up!

Try these out this week and let us know how it goes – we’d love to hear from you. If you have thoughts or questions, post in our Facebook group.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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