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How to Cultivate Empathy in the Workplace in Difficult Times

Amy Bergen

"Be Kind" written on a computer screen

When empathy is part of a workplace culture, employees are happier and more productive, leading to greater success all around. And while difficult circumstances require more empathy than usual, they also make it easy for this crucial skill to get lost in the shuffle.

Whether your team is handling shifts in personnel and responsibilities, dealing with financial loss, or struggling to make remote work actually work, being kind to each other might take some practice. Prioritizing empathy is important for everyone, especially leaders and people in supervisors who often set the standard for the organization.

Daily communication

Empathy starts with simple interactions that show genuine interest. Check in with colleagues about how their days are going, how their workload feels, and what they might need. Then—and this is the tricky part—really listen to their answers. Active listening is a crucial skill for professionals in any industry. Reflective listening, its close cousin, includes paraphrasing someone’s words back to them to make sure you understand: "What I hear you saying is _____. Do I have that right?"

Make a habit of thanking people for their time, attention, and effort. This could happen at the beginning or end of a meeting, after someone completes an assignment, or when people leave or sign off for the day. It might seem strange to thank someone for performing tasks that are just part of the job. But gratitude is an easy, free, and unlimited way to let colleagues know they’re appreciated and valued.

Honesty and authenticity

Owning your mistakes is one of the most empathetic professional moves you can make. When you admit you’re not perfect and take steps to make things right, you give others permission to do the same.

Think of it this way: would you rather have a co-worker hide an error or confess as soon as possible so you can find a solution? People should feel comfortable coming forward with their mistakes.

Supervisors can also model honest communication across the board by admitting when they’re overwhelmed and feeling vulnerable. Employees in turn will be encouraged to speak up if their workload is unmanageable or they’re confused about directions, instead of suffering in silence.

If the workplace as a whole is facing challenges, you can address these challenges as a team. Maybe your organization committed to a major project, but now you’re realizing you don’t have the resources to complete it on time (or that the project wasn’t a great idea in the first place). An empathetic response acknowledges the situation, assigns responsibility without guilt or blame, and focuses on how to move forward.

Leadership and teamwork

Empathy flows "top-down" in an organizational hierarchy; it starts with leadership. According to researchers at the University of Southern California, empathy helps define a good leader or executive in any business.

Leaders can look out for staff members’ mental and emotional well-being, of course. But they can set an example of compassion in more subtle ways. Make sure all voices, not just the loudest or most opinionated speakers, are heard in discussions. Give others a chance to facilitate meetings and lead initiatives as appropriate. Show interest in everyone on staff—learn their names, their career goals, and what they find most exciting about their job. If you work for a larger organization, this becomes even more essential.

The practice of empathy extends beyond staff interactions to the wider world of your nonprofit. Find out how you can be a resource for people you’re accustomed to asking for help, like funders or donors. If your organization does direct service, get to know the population you serve and the employees or volunteers meeting their needs—not as a photo or public relations opportunity, but as a learning experience (for you).

Actions like these contribute to a culture that prizes teamwork and cooperation. Maybe your workers have different responsibilities, pay scales, and levels of experience, but they’re all crucial to the success of your mission. The more employees feel valued and supported, the more likely they are to feel proud of the work they do and go "above and beyond" in their duties.

Handling conflict

Conflict is inevitable when people work together, and a lack of empathy can make conflict worse. Behavioral science describes a "hot-cold empathy gap" where people in "hot" moods—driven by stress, urgency, anxiety, or emotional impulses—can’t relate to people in calmer "cold" moods. On the other hand, those in "cold" moods have trouble responding to co-workers in an anxious "hot" state.

For instance, if you’re in charge of a project with a demanding timeline and you haven’t had much sleep, or you need time off for a personal crisis, you may think no one realizes the pressure you’re facing. And your colleagues might wonder why you’re so frantic.

Empathy starts with a good faith effort to understand why someone is behaving in a way that puzzles you. Resist the impulse to judge or criticize someone, either to their face or to others. Instead ask them open-ended, non-confrontational questions:

  • "Can you help me understand why this is important to you?"
  • "Can you explain why you disagree/what your objection is? I’d like to see where you’re coming from." 
  • "What are the next steps you’d like to take here?"

Remember you can validate someone’s feelings and opinions even if you don’t share them. Learning to navigate disagreements respectfully is a key part of teamwork—organizations can’t make progress if everyone agrees on everything all the time!

Like most skills we learn, empathy is an ongoing process. But putting it into practice can make your organization a place where people grow, thrive, and love to work, even in the worst of circumstances. 

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Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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