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Bridging the Workplace Empathy Gap

It’s time to face it: There is a growing disconnect between employees and employers.

We saw it during the Great Resignation and then again with Quiet Quitting. While some employers were quick to disregard these trends as nothing more than “lazy” workers, these kinds of engagement issues don’t come out of nowhere—in fact, they’re just symptoms of a much larger problem. 

So what’s causing this mismatch? Two words: empathy gap.

What Is an Empathy Gap in the Workplace?

An empathy gap is commonly understood as a cognitive bias that prevents someone from understanding the perspective of another person who may be in a different mental state. Sometimes, the other person is our future selves (an intrapersonal empathy gap), other times it can be a friend, colleague, or loved one (an interpersonal empathy gap). 

For example, you might wake up feeling particularly motivated one morning and go for a run. Afterward, you’re in a heightened emotional state due to all the endorphins released from your exercise, so you set a goal to run a mile every morning. The next day rolls around, and your future self becomes your present self, who can’t bear to get out of bed, much less run a full mile. Instead of rising in the morning with the energy you had the previous day, you wake up wondering why you made a commitment to yourself that you knew you couldn’t keep.

This example highlights two distinct kinds of empathy gaps:

  1. Prospective empathy gap, or the inability to predict future behavior.
  2. Retrospective empathy gap, or when we reflect on our past behavior.

Of course, it’s easier to forgive ourselves for a decision when we know the feelings that drove it. When it comes to interpersonal empathy gaps, we often lack the context of another person’s past actions, their current mental state, or the emotional drivers behind a behavior. This is known as egocentric bias. In the workplace, these biases can form empathy gaps among employees, causing conflict and division. More often, however, these empathy gaps form rifts between employers and employees.

According to an Ernst & Young survey, while 87% of U.S. workers agreed empathy leads to better leadership, over half of the participants (52%) felt their organization’s attempts at empathy have been inauthentic. At the same time, Businessolver’s 2023 State of Workplace Empathy Report found that only 59% of workers believe their CEOs are more empathetic than they were before the pandemic—compared to 67% of CEOs surveyed.

But what exactly does this growing empathy gap mean for businesses? 

The Impacts of Empathy Gaps on Workplace Dynamics

In workplaces devoid of empathic concern for others, conflicts can quickly escalate, compromising collaboration and hindering the development of a strong and cohesive team. This is particularly true when leaders lack empathy. Employees often feel undervalued, misunderstood, and demotivated by employers who disregard different perspectives and other people’s emotions. 

Not only does this limit productivity and innovation, but it also impacts the broader organizational culture and employee relations. That’s why empathy is an essential characteristic of any team member, but especially leaders. As a core component of emotional intelligence, empathy lays the foundation for building a broader set of emotional skills, including self-awareness, emotional regulation, and social intelligence.

The Benefits of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

Emotionally intelligent leaders can stay calm under pressure, empathize with others, and manage themselves during a hot emotional state. They care about their employees as individuals and as a team and work persistently to foster a more empathetic work environment. 

This approach offers a range of benefits for both the business and employees alike, including:

Creating a Supportive Environment: Empathy and emotional intelligence allow leaders to create supportive workplaces that prioritize the wellbeing and development of employees. With a genuine understanding of the challenges and stresses employees face, employers are equipped to provide the necessary support and flexibility workers need to overcome these obstacles and thrive. 

Enhancing Collaboration: When leaders understand and value the different perspectives and emotions of team members, they create a safe space for open communication and mutual respect—two essential elements for effective collaboration. This atmosphere boosts employee engagement, harnessing diverse thoughts and skills to achieve common goals while ensuring everyone feels heard and valued.

Fostering Inclusivity and Belonging: Empathy is also key to creating an inclusive workplace where everyone feels like they belong. When leaders are able to not just value and acknowledge but truly connect with the different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives of each individual, they build a culture where everyone feels accepted and appreciated. Of course, this doesn’t mean forcing connections between vastly different experiences—rather, it’s about creating an environment where people feel safe and supported to share their perspectives.

Increasing Engagement: When employees feel like they belong at work and they can speak openly without fear of repercussions, they’re more likely to be engaged and participate in the company culture. However, leaders can go a step further to boost engagement by acknowledging employees’ feelings and using emotional incentives to develop a more meaningful and fulfilling work experience. This connection is the key to employee motivation, inspiring loyalty and a strong work ethic on an individual level.

Improving Employee Retention: On a team level, employees want to be able to connect. In fact, the Ernst & Young report found that 50% of survey participants had left a previous job because they felt like they didn’t belong. In contrast, empathetic environments help employees feel included and satisfied in their jobs, reducing turnover and forging strong bonds.

Solving Problems and Conflicts Effectively: Whether work-related or interpersonal, conflicts are bound to happen in the workplace, but emotionally intelligent leadership can mean the difference between the problem devolving into chaos and an effective resolution. The best approach is to encourage an open dialogue where all parties can openly express their viewpoints and feelings. Not only does this lead to more amicable and lasting solutions for interpersonal conflicts, but it also fosters greater innovation in achieving common goals.

What Causes Empathy Gaps in the First Place?

We’ve covered what an empathy gap is and why it matters in the workplace, but before we dive into effective ways to close the distance, it’s important to understand why these gaps form in the first place.

Without getting too in the weeds, we can boil down the basic reasoning behind this cognitive bias: People often struggle to understand a lived experience that differs from their present mental and emotional state. This happens all of the time, taking many forms in the workplace.

For instance, a manager might unknowingly set unrealistic deadlines without understanding the workload and stress levels of their team members. In this case, the manager doesn’t fully appreciate or recognize the team’s capacity and the pressures they face. This lack of empathy can lead to burnout and resentment, as employees feel their wellbeing is overlooked. 

Some of the most common causes of empathy gaps in the workplace include:

  1. Excessive workloads: High workloads and unrealistic expectations can leave little time or energy for employees to engage with each other and demonstrate empathy. When individuals become overwhelmed with tasks, they can neglect their own needs and concerns and those of their colleagues to complete their work on time.
  2. Lack of understanding or open dialogue: Misunderstandings and assumptions proliferate in workplaces where there is no open communication. Without the ability to freely share experiences and feelings, employees can find it difficult to step outside of their own perspectives and empathize with each other.
  3. Cultural and generational differences: Employees are bound to encounter everything from clashing cultural backgrounds and generational differences to different views on politics and social issues in the workplace. Without efforts to understand each other, individuals may misinterpret each other and struggle to relate or connect on a deeper level.
  4. Insufficient diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs: DEI initiatives are critical for educating employees, mitigating biases and stereotypes, and fostering an appreciation of diverse perspectives. Without them, empathy gaps are bound to form between groups and employees may feel overlooked.
  5. Hierarchical structures: Rigid hierarchies can create unhealthy power dynamics in the workplace. These structures can discourage open expression and harm efforts to foster understanding across the organization. When workers cannot share their thoughts and feelings with those in higher positions, it can widen the empathy gap between employers and employees.

Bridging these rifts and addressing these root causes will take hard work and introspection. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to fostering empathy in the workplace, there are a few clear action items employers can use to get them started on the right track.

Breaking Down Barriers to Employee and Employer Empathy

Here are 5 effective ways to create a more empathetic work environment:

1. Cultivating Empathy in Leadership

The top-down approach doesn’t work with everything, but with empathy, it’s a must. Leaders can cultivate an empathetic leadership culture by practicing active listening and showing genuine interest in the personal and professional lives of employees. Being open to feedback is another critical trait, as it sets a powerful example for the entire organization while demonstrating care and building trust.

2. Strengthening Communication Strategies

We’ve consistently stressed the importance of open communication, so it should come as no surprise and it’s the cornerstone of an empathetic workplace. Developing strategies to facilitate clear dialogue—such as regular team meetings, one-on-one check-ins, and open forums for sharing ideas and concerns—helps ensure every voice is heard. Training employees in effective communication techniques can also give them the tools they need to articulate their feelings and understand each other’s.

3. Promoting Diversity and Inclusion

A truly empathetic and open workplace embraces and celebrates diversity. Everyone should feel included and valued at work, regardless of their background. Implementing comprehensive DEI programs that educate employees on the importance of diverse perspectives and experiences can foster a greater sense of appreciation for each other and a more inclusive culture. By celebrating cultural differences and encouraging different viewpoints, companies can enhance creativity and innovation within their teams.

4. Recognizing and Addressing Personal Biases

Personal biases, even if unconscious, can significantly hinder the development of an inclusive, empathetic workplace. Organizations can create an environment where everyone feels they belong by encouraging self-awareness and providing training on recognizing and addressing these biases. With safe spaces for employees to discuss and learn from each other and their biases, employers can promote deeper understanding and mutual respect.

5. Providing Empathy Training and Professional Development

Empathy isn’t something a person either has or doesn’t have. It can be developed and strengthened over time through training and mindful practice. Employers can offer targeted empathy training workshops and other professional development opportunities to foster greater emotional intelligence in the workplace. These courses can equip leaders and employees alike with the skills they need to build stronger, more empathetic relationships with colleagues. Not only does this improve the overall workplace culture and team performance, but it can also improve satisfaction and fulfillment in their personal lives.

Create a More Empathetic Workplace With WellRight

Are you looking to foster a more empathetic workplace that supports employee wellbeing? WellRight offers comprehensive wellness solutions designed to bridge empathy gaps and nurture a culture of inclusion, support, and understanding.

Request a demo to start your journey toward a more empathetic workplace today with WellRight.

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