“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it” (Dr. Maya Angelou to the New York Times).

With COVID-19 and racial justice issues taking center stage, we need empathy more than ever. The ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings from his or her point of view opens the door to good working relationships, innovative business solutions and more inclusive societies. However, empathy is often misunderstood and undervalued. Realizing the benefits of empathy starts by clarifying what empathy actually is, why it matters and how we can learn it.

Improving empathy is vital in our current circumstances. Displaying behavioral empathy has become more challenging in a remote workplace, as video-based technology is still not equivalent to face-to-face communication. Moreover, people are less likely to show empathy when it’s needed the most. In situations where people are feeling distressed or vulnerable, they are less open to understanding others’ perspectives; instead, they tend to defend their own perspective vigorously, escalating tension and conflict.

Across the challenges of 2020, leaders have varied tremendously in how much they empathize with employees. We can see healthy levels of empathy in the leaders who checked in with employees, asked how they were doing and surveyed them on their concerns. In comparison, we saw underdeveloped empathy in leaders who wondered aloud, “why can’t John Smith work in the office tomorrow?” when John Smith didn’t have child care or previously relied on public transportation. Other leaders expected Black employees to be focused during the morning team meeting after the killing of George Floyd. In general, statements of “Why doesn’t …” and, “If it were me, I …” are signs of deficient empathy.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy often is misconstrued as “touchy-feely,” and leaders often believe that they show empathy when they put out carefully constructed statements in response to stressful events. These mistaken beliefs prevent leaders from fully engaging with the powerful skill set of empathy. The time is right to authentically listen to, understand and acknowledge employees’ perspectives.

According to a recent review of rigorous organizational research, there are three types of empathy:

1.   Affective Empathy

Affective empathy involves experiencing others’ emotions.

2.   Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy involves understanding others’ thoughts and feelings.

3.   Behavioral Empathy

Behavioral empathy refers to the verbal and non-verbal behaviors that indicate affective or cognitive empathy, including reflecting others’ facial expression, voice and gestures. This empathy also is conveyed through communication, such as verbally expressing understanding (e.g., paraphrasing), asking questions about another person’s thoughts or feelings, and non-verbal demonstrations of listening (e.g., head nodding).

Does Empathy Matter at Work?

Current research shows that cognitive and behavioral empathy make an impact in the workplace. One study found that individuals who displayed behavioral empathy were viewed as emerging leaders among their master of business administration (MBA) peers because they considered others’ perspectives. Other research suggests that workers with high levels of cognitive empathy are more likely to show compassion and help others.

Regarding affective empathy, neuroscience research has shown that feeling pain with others activates the same regions of the brain as experiencing it firsthand. A compassionate reaction does not cause pain itself, but it does produce concern, warmth and motivation to help the sufferer. This finding suggests that there are great benefits from teaching individuals to focus on being compassionate.

When their direct reports view them as more compassionate or “empathically concerned,” leaders’ supervisors rate them as better performers, less likely to derail and more skilled at giving negative feedback. As a recent example, as of May 2020, U.S. states with female governors have had fewer COVID-19 deaths than states with male governors, and an analysis of 1.2 million words of transcripts found that the women expressed more empathic concern in their briefings, demonstrating the importance of leaders’ ability to demonstrate empathy.

Can People Learn Empathy?

Although individual people’s baseline empathy varies naturally, evidence suggests that they can improve it. For example, a lab study increased cognitive empathy by instructing individuals to “feel the full impact of what the other person is going through.” These individuals then delivered negative feedback in a way that was viewed as more fair and just.

Many leadership development consultants see growth among leaders who deliberately work on strengthening specific aspects of empathy. Effective change starts with the motivation to improve, which often comes from learning how empathy contributes to positive outcomes for individuals and the organization. Next, distilling empathy into small behaviors helps leaders practice during training and then on the job. For example, empathic communication involves actively listening (i.e., being attentive, summarizing, clarifying, paraphrasing, etc.) and engaging others through powerful questions (e.g., open-ended rather than leading or yes/no questions; avoiding jumping into problem-solving, and exploring the situation by asking, “What is your goal?”).

Perspective-taking is another best practice. It involves pausing and creating space to respond thoughtfully rather than reacting impulsively. This skill involves thinking through others’ expectations before meetings; pushing oneself to find additional ways of viewing a situation; and staying curious about another person’s viewpoint, rather than judging or becoming defensive.

Although simple, these skills take time to develop through deliberate and regular practice on the job. Asking for feedback from a trusted colleague and regular self-reflection are tactics that help empathy improvements “stick.”

How Can Organizations Foster Empathy?

Context sets the stage for success or failure. Therefore, organizations that set up contexts that promote behavior change will be more successful. Rather than assuming leaders will develop the skill of empathy with brief training, applying evidence-based strategies enables organizations to create local contexts to weave empathy into everyday interactions.

First, the management team visibly needs to support understanding, developing and practicing empathy at all organizational levels. Senior leaders create the systems that promote (or prevent) empathy. They can’t afford to outsource this work to the human resources department.

Second, adding empathy to reward systems puts “teeth” behind leaders’ words about empathy’s importance to the organization.

Third, developing empathy requires new processes and resources. Offering formal empathy training and “in-the-flow of work” coaching helps employees learn and practice new empathic behaviors on the job.

Fourth, it’s a good idea to ensure that your organization is hiring people with the knowledge and skills needed to actively engage in developing empathy. Specifically design organizational talent systems to attract and reward people who are learning-oriented and motivated to expand their capabilities.

Finally, regularly communicating the value of developing and practicing empathy can including publicizing initiatives, celebrating good examples of empathy, and sharing mistakes and lessons learned.

What Would Change If Leaders and Organizations Prioritized Empathy?

Empathic behaviors would pay off in both the short and long term. McKinsey reports that demand for emotional and social skills will increase as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics automate more work. When working with other people, understanding their thoughts and feelings is essential for successful coordination. Behavioral empathy is, as a result, often critical to team performance and personal success.

If we take empathy seriously, solving seemingly intractable problems like systemic racism would be easier because more people would be equipped for difficult conversations and taking action. Few problems have “silver bullet” solutions, but increasing empathy improves the odds of creating and sustaining real change that benefits us all.