Empathy in the workplace

What is Empathy?

The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing as building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help... If you want the people you work with to do extraordinary things, you really have to understand what they value.
— David Kelley, Co-founder of IDEO

According to the Merriam Webster’s dictionary Empathy means:  “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :  the capacity for this.”

This means that empathy allows us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes where we can help understand why they may be feeling or acting the way they are to a certain situation.

This is very different from sympathy, which is “the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else's trouble, grief, misfortune, etc. : a sympathetic feeling”.  Basically, you show you feel sorry for them but you do not put yourself in the vulnerable position to try and understand their situation.

Take a moment and watch this great video, by Brene Brown, explaining the difference.

After watching that, you want now see how empathy is a powerful skill to develop and use in your life, work, and relationships, and is an important quality of great leaders.


So, how can one build empathy and use it to better their life?


You may want to start by practicing putting yourself in another person’s situation. Try to think of how you’d feel if what they are telling you was happening to you. How would you react to the new or approach the situation differently? Understanding their situation helps you understand them on a deeper level, and helps you develop empathy. In order to put yourself in their shoes, you must truly understand their context. If they are a different gender or from a different culture, how can you truly empathize? You must listen and learn by asking questions that will reveal their perspectives. In order to be in their shoes, you have to know what they shoes are and how they feel from outside of your perspective. This is very hard and most of us don’t do it well.

One fun tool that workplaces across Canada are using to help test their employees on empathy is the Empathy Toy, developed by Twenty One Toys in Toronto’s Innovated Space. This toy is a blindfolded puzzle game that can only be solved when players learn to understand each other. It’s fun, it’s challenging, but it helps your grow your team and strengthen your relationships/understand with those you work with.

Designed as a toolset for organizations, the Empathy Toy generates reach discussions about the role of empathy and communication in the workplace — and unlocks insights for improved performance, smoother collaboration, and more authentic employee engagement.
— The Empathy Toy Facilitator's Guidebook

Recently I took a class to become an Empathy Toy trainer and I'm very excited to play with leaders to develop their empathy. In this case, play is not immature; it's a safe way to talk about very hard issues where the toy is the subject, not a person. The ability to talk about these issues safely helps us all grow without anyone getting hurt. Watch this video for more information:

Header Image found at: Core77DesignAwards