Building an empathetic workplace


If the late 20th century workplace was one characterised by ambition at all costs, the 21st may be taking a bit of a different turn as people seek more supportive environments and employers emphasise the need for “soft” skills like communication and team building.

In his new book, cultural thinker Roman Krznaric argues that the driver for this change is the need for greater empathy in our lives. In Empathy: why it matters and how to get it, he says 20th century influences, from Freud and Oprah Winfrey, coupled with growing urbanisation and free market economics, have led to an overemphasis on individualism which has resulted in many people becoming “far too absorbed in our own lives to give much thought to anyone else” – and at a time when we face enormous global challenges. Ironically, he adds, we have never been more connected to each other globally, through social media and the like. However, he questions whether we are making the most of the potential of technology for building empathy. For instance, he says social media encourages people to link with like-minded others rather than to develop empathy for people who live different lives or have different views to them.

Nevertheless, he has noted a shift since he started talking about empathy 10 years ago. “No-one was interested then, but things have shifted,” he says. He puts this down in part to scientific advances, particularly in neuroscience. It had previously been commonly accepted that humans were in essence “self-interested, self-preserving creatures”, he says. Yet new research on the brain backs up the idea that just as strong as the self-interested side of our nature is our ability to put ourselves in other’s shoes and connect with each other. Moreover, despite our pursuit of wealth and status, studies show that human well being is more linked to intrinsic values connected to family, friends and community. So how can we become more connected? Krznaric says it’s a question of exercising the social part of our brain more. The book sets out how we can do that, from putting ourselves in new environments to becoming detectives of our own responses to ensure we are really listening to others.

Workplace empathy
Could this also be applied to the workplace? Krznaric believes empathetic skills can be of huge benefit at work and that employers are beginning to realise this. A recent US research, for instance, shows a significant proportion of jobs advertised for over $100,000 are seeking empathy as a core skill. Krznaric believes skills, such as empathetic listening can reduce conflicts at work and help people reach agreement or at least feel more understood. Moreover, he adds that innovation is linked to an ability to step into your customers’ shoes.

However, he doubts that CEOs brought up in a hierarchical, dog eat dog culture will be able to suddenly change habits that have been developed over time. He says: “You’re not suddenly going to turns those kind of CEOs into Ghandis or Mandelas”, adding that the best way to change work culture is to start by recruiting people based in part on their empathy skills.

Does that mean hiring more women? Krznaric says there are two kinds of empathy – affective empathy which is linked to emotional resonance and cognitive empathy which is linked to an ability to imagine what it is like to be a different person. Women are better on average at affective empathy, but both genders are equally good at cognitive empathy. At work, he states, women might be better at reading people’s emotions, but that doesn’t mean men are “empathetic basket cases”. It’s a question of encouraging greater empathy, although he says greater gender diversity can help.

Krznaric adds that empathy can be taught from an early age. He cites the Roots of Empathy programme in Canada which shows that teaching children what it’s like to step into another’s shoes can increase cooperation and reduce bullying. “Long term it can help to develop a new generation of young people with different values,” he says. This can improve their relationships with each other, but it also has social and political resonance. He is working with Friends of the Earth who are interested in teaching young people, for instance, to connect with people on the other side of the world who are being affected by climate change.

Krznaric is launching an Empathy Museum in London in September. It will have a number of interactive exhibits which develop empathetic skills. For instance, the first is an empathy shoe shop where you get to literally step into someone else’s shoes – for instance, a Syrian refugee – and walk a mile in them while listening to an audio recording of them talking about their lives. Sainsbury’s has already expressed an interest in have the Empathy Museum’s bus come to its stores to talk to its employees.

“Ten years ago that would have been seen as crazy,” says Krznaric. He says he is not sure if he is optimistic or pessimistic about the future. “On the one hand, there is despair when you look at issues like Isis and immigration in Europe. The barriers appear to be going up, but on the other there have been amazing shifts in empathetic thinking. I want to help spread an empathy revolution.”

*Empathy: why it matters and how to get it by Roman Krznaric is published by Rider Books, price £8.99.

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