Are “empathy” and “workplace” compatible concepts?

Dr. Roman Krznaric, writing for the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley, marshals the latest research on empathy to identify the “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.” Here’s the list, and the full article explains what’s behind each:

  • “Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers”
  • “Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities”
  • “Habit 3: Try another person’s life”
  • “Habit 4: Listen hard — and open up”
  • “Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change”
  • “Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination”

Application to the workplace

Do these habits lend themselves easily to the typical workplace? Many readers who found this blog because of unpleasant or abusive experiences at work might lean toward the negative, and I have to say that I share some of that pessimism.

Furthermore, there’s empirical data to support those negative impressions of the emotional state of the workplace. A recent Gallup Poll indicated that 70 percent of American workers “have ‘checked out’ at work or are ‘actively disengaged,'” as Ricardo Lopez reports for the Los Angeles Times. These high percentages of emotional disengagement have been pretty consistent since 2000.

Granted, empathy does not necessarily equate to engagement in one’s job, and vice versa, but I’d be surprised if there’s not a strong correlation. It follows that fostering a workplace full of people who cultivate those habits is a worthy ideal. While I can imagine even the best of employers getting a little nervous about Habit 5(!), the other five seem completely compatible with a productive and high-morale workforce.

And what about those employers who don’t get it? Well then, maybe some of that “mass action and social change” is exactly what the doctor ordered. Surely that is a fitting thought as we approach Labor Day 2013.

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Related post

Roman Krznaric is the author of How to Find Fulfilling Work (2012), which I reviewed earlier this year.

11 responses

  1. Having empathy in the workplace did not serve me well. In my last job, I stood up for a coworker and also myself to a manager who was a bully. In the end, I had to leave my job and move on. I was told by a person in HR the most popular prescription for employees was Lexapro. I don’t know it this was true as I wasn’t privy to insurance records but I tend to believe it because of the culture. At the time, even my doctor said, “I can give you a drug so that nothing will bother you at work.”

  2. The only job I ever had where I encountered “empathy” was at the Water District – a government agency. They were so nice and it was such a good place to work, that every job opening had 600 applicants. That was in the 1990’s when things were still good. But your everyday corporate office environment – ya gotta be kidding me. Oh wait, there was one bank I worked for in CA that was nice, but I was only there 3 months as a temp. I am now burned out on it all of course, with PTSD.

  3. “empathy is the devil’s best tool”

    Yes, empathy makes us vulnerable. Empathy leads us to believe and trust in people we should not believe and trust in. That makes it easy for evil people to manipulate us.

    Empathy is also the root of all good. It’s what motivates us to help each other and to make the world a better place. It’s what inspires us to take an unpopular stand when it’s the right thing to do. A world without empathy would not be worth living in.

    I’ve come to believe that good people need to learn how to distinguish people who have empathy from those who either don’t have empathy or have little. The key is looking beyond words and expressions. Look at actions instead. That’s where the truth is. All the “sincerity” in the world cannot stand up to fact.

    Empathy is a gift.
    Empathy is what helps a writer connect to his/her readers.
    Empathy is what helps a teacher anticipate and understand where students are stuck.
    Empathy is what motivates good customer service.
    Empathy, and the desire to brighten lives, is what inspires beautiful design.
    Empathy is what holds families, friends, and communities together.

    If you are an empathetic person, be proud and grateful. The world must be an empty dark place for those lacking empathy. Aspects of US culture celebrate the crass and the cruel. Let’s change that.

  4. The comments about empathy and vulnerability highlight the challenges in creating workplaces that embrace empathy, while not allowing that empathy to be our undoing when abusive behaviors are at play. I sometimes get exasperated when people who embrace empathy do not recognize the differences between incivility & conflict vs. abuse, as if the latter doesn’t really exist.

    Even if we use the standard, assumed prevalence figures re psychopathy and sociopathy, we’re looking at 1-4 percent of the population, and there’s no reason to think that the workplace is immune from that presence. One person in a hundred, in the right position, can make life a nightmare for a lot of people, and we know that people with psychopathic tendencies are more likely to be drawn to management positions.

    So..we do need more empathy in our workplaces and, of course, in society in general. But empathy should not be confused with naivete or ignorance.

  5. Agree.

    I was in denial, even though the reality was killing me. I just would not acknowledge that the abuse was intentional. My friends said it was, but I kept making excuses for it. Why? I suppose it was easier to lie to myself than face the reality that some people enjoy hurting others. It’s not such a cozy world when you realize that 1 out of 25 people would slip a knife through your ribs without a second thought if they believed they could get away with it. Workplace consultants who refuse to acknowledge abuse should get out of the field.

    • I think that’s a common initial reaction among targets…we can’t believe that someone is mistreating us intentionally, without any provocation. It’s easier to blame bullys’ behavior on other reasons such as they are having a bad day, they treat everyone lousy, etc. than to accept that it is personal. Because then you keep asking yourself “what did I do to this person to incur such hatred?” and never get an answer or a chance to make it right.

      • Yes. It made no sense. It felt unreal. The picture only became clear when I could accept that, from the bully’s point of view, I was insignificant. It wasn’t about me. I suppose that means there was an element of ego involved in the denial. Perhaps someone with a stronger sense of self would have realized what was happening sooner than I did, but I don’t expect I’ll make that mistake again.

  6. Many years ago, Ruth Namie introduced me to a book that has shaped a lot of my thinking about the traumatic impact of workplace bullying, Dr. Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions. The book theorizes that many post-trauma responses are the result of shattered assumptions about the goodness of people and the world. I think this theme is echoed in some of the comments above. I wrote up a mini-review of the book a few years ago: https://newworkplace.wordpress.com/2009/07/25/why-severe-workplace-bullying-can-be-so-traumatizing/.

  7. I recall the grooming phase of my being set up as a target. At the time, I wasn’t aware that my supervisor was a calculating sadist, so I spent that time trying to be the best employee I could and making every effort to address her feedback.

    In my case, it genuinely was naiveté, in the purest sense of the word, as I hadn’t, as yet, been the recipient of the extreme toxic level of psychopathology that I would spend the next nine years learning about and trying to cope with so I could keep my job.

    Having said that, I truly do believe that bullies depend upon a hierarchal worldview environment whereby employees, in my case, are assigned roles according to the pecking order of unequal worth.

    Someone who attempts to exhibit genuine empathy is typically manifesting the traits of someone who embraces an egalitarian worldview whereby each person is viewed as having equal worth, even though the roles in the structure are hierarchal.

    Once my bully’s antenna got wind that I understood who she was, I was in for a very rocky journey.
    I truly do believe that as long as our culture embraces social Darwinism-survival of the fittest in social interactions-the concept of empathy and equalitarianism is seen as a threat.

    I do think that the efforts that we are engaged in will, in time, support the flourishing of an equalitarian worldview. In the meantime, bullies desperately depend upon seeing some of us as inferior to them in order to compensate for their own experience of poor self-worth that they were indoctrinated with via the hierarchal worldview in their own lives. They will view empathy as a threat, thereby setting the target up for more aggression.

    After everything was said and done-nine years later and having lost that job five months ago-I have experienced a cluster of PTSD symptoms, as a result of my trying so hard to stick it out, hoping that, in time, my relationship with this person would improve, without my having to surrender my self-respect in order for that to happen.

    Perhaps, my hoping was naiveté as well. However, I just didn’t know what else I could do, short of competing with my co-workers in trying not to be a target and colluding with my bully to target someone else, which I honestly wasn’t able to do without surrendering my self-respect and regard for human life.

    In the final analysis, I ask myself, how does a person who intrinsically embraces an egalitarian worldview, cope in a work environment that is designed to hurt people, which unfortunately appears to be very common place. Sometimes, I feel like a misfit, even though I know I am not.

    I do appreciate this blog being a resource for each of us. I sense that we are a part of something very positive and healing.

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