Why Your Workplace Empathy Efforts Are Failing


The 2022 State of Workplace Empathy study demonstrates perceptions of workplace empathy trending downward since 2021. 

Translation: employees are less confident that organizations will respond to demands for flexibility, work-life balance, and diversity. The ruptured landscape of post-pandemic modern work even inspired Hollywood to critique the expectation that once we step into the office, we turn on our “work self” and turn off our “authentic self.” 

This is the very mindset triggering The Great Resignation and quiet quitting trend, sending businesses scrambling to hold onto talent and shift from “business as usual” to an employee-centric workplace.  

The escalating emphasis on empathy is rooted in overdue good intentions, and with the right execution, it could mean the end to high attrition. 

How do we know? Employees say as much. According to the 2021 EY Empathy in Business Survey, roughly half of respondents reported leaving a job because their boss wasn’t empathetic, they didn’t feel valued, or they didn’t feel like they belonged. Eighty-eight percent of respondents also suggest that empathic leadership would create a stronger sense of loyalty.

The Great Resignation isn’t a Great Mystery. There are clear solutions to the problem. Yet: the problem persists. 

If you’re determined to see an uptick in workplace empathy, don’t let the following empathy roadblocks stand in your way. 

You aren’t putting action behind “empathy.” 

Put another way: your business may talk the talk, but it doesn’t walk the walk

And when an organization drops the ball on follow-through, people look for a better place to land.

Let’s take DEI efforts as an example…. DEI is a wellspring for workplace empathy and it sits at the forefront of many social conversations. “Allyship” was even Dictionary.com’s word of the year in 2021. We are definitely talking about it, but organizations fall short of helping these groups find as much authenticity and value in the workplace as their white counterparts.

In Businessolver’s 2022 DEI report, for instance, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian workers attest to far greater need for DEI improvements in the workplace than their CEOs. Perceptions clash in measuring the success of DEI, leaving those who would benefit without a level playing field.

It’s a complex divide with a lot of moving parts deserving of consideration, but starting somewhere simple, we can learn a lot from the approach of The Empathy Museum

Somewhere in England, there’s a movable building in the shape of a shoe box where visitors literally put on other people’s shoes while listening to a narration of the shoe owner’s life. 

Putting that metaphor in action…. Expand employee access to networking opportunities so they can share their stories with others. Stories are one of the most powerful ways we overcome differences. They can actually change our brains for the better through exposure to new perspectives and experiences. 

Another path toward improved DEI in the workplace is a training technique called perspective taking, where participants imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes and gain a deeper appreciation of the unique struggles of a different group. This creates more positive feelings across different groups, no matter the divide…and without the need to swap shoes.  

(This is how “allyship” stops being just a word and becomes a lived experience.)

You aren’t practicing empathic listening.

Listening is arguably the greatest skill of an empathic leader. However, less than 2% of professionals have had any formal training in listening techniques.

In her book, The Empathy Effect, Helen Riess, M.D. says that people who are good at being empathetic are usually “good at perceiving what others feel, able to process the information, and able to respond effectively.” According to Riess, one of the key tools for expressing empathy is “empathic listening,” or “hearing the whole person.” 

Empathic listening = listening carefully to the perspectives of another person while suspending all judgment and avoiding the temptation to interrupt (which, yes, can be incredibly challenging…we know).

The idea of “hearing the whole person” captures the importance of being attentive to nonverbal cues. Eye contact, facial expressions, posture, tone, body language — these are all features to which we should “listen.” 

Making eye contact (not to be confused with an awkward death stare) allows you to gain a quick read on a person’s state of being. Look for facial expressions, since what a person says may sometimes be at odds with how they feel. The same goes for tone, which often speaks louder than words themselves. 

Next, indicate that you processed the conversation. Try summarizing what you heard and verbally confirming your appreciation of the other person’s perspective. 

Ideally, this will lead to a meaningful response. As management professor Christine Riordan tells us, “Beyond exhibiting the behaviors associated with empathetic listening, follow-up is an important step to ensure that others understand that true listening has occurred.” 

From a business leader’s perspective: take additional steps to incorporate employee feedback, follow through on promises, and provide a summary of meeting notes and proposed changes to put words into action. If a leader is unable to incorporate feedback, it is a best practice to offer an explanation with a note of gratitude for the employee’s willingness to contribute. 

You’re experiencing workplace empathy burnout. 

All signs point to an empathy deficit across American culture — not just in the workplace, but everywhere. Still, if you’ve been hard at work as a workplace empathy champion only to find your energy waning, it’s possible you’re overdoing it. (Didn’t think that was possible, huh?)

In his article, The Limits of Empathy, Adam Waytz writes that hyper-focusing on empathy can result in “compassion fatigue” and burnout. 

The truth is: empathy is exhausting. 

It’s like the old adage, “you can’t pour from an empty bucket.” There’s only so much empathy to go around, considering its high emotional toll. Extending empathy to employees can deplete your empathy reserves for loved ones, and/or it can become hard over time to equitably convey empathy to everyone on your team.

Although it may not seem as much, empathy is some of the hardest work a leader can do. Waytz’s advice: leaders should temper their efforts and be realistic about what they can accomplish. 

Pro-tip: take “empathy breaks.” Small moments of self-directed recharge can help business leaders improve (and sustain) their overall approach. 

Remember: you, too, need compassion — even in the pilot seat.

You may also need a little assistance….

Developing workplace empathy is a long game, and a team sport. Big facts: it takes years of practice to not just sustainably cultivate a personal practice of empathy, but to instill those practices and sensitivities in others.

Of course, when it comes to keeping pace with the modern workplace, dedicated training to expedite those skills is a near-must…which is where The Forem comes in. Avoid hitting burnout and talk to our team about our community-driven, live cohort training, wherein empathy and connectivity stand at the core of all curriculum.