In 2009, I facilitated a meeting with a client from a global hospitality brand. It was a very culturally diverse group and represented a range of professions: marketing, operations, and human resources.

We were developing a charter for a major new initiative and the choice of words for it was particularly important:

  • They would be translated into multiple languages.🌐
  • They set out ambitious goals.🏆

There were different personalities in the room, with opinions that differed significantly.

I was struck by the passion with which they expressed their views.

Also, by their patience and commitment to understanding each other’s viewpoints.

The session, of course, went on late into the evening. It might have been resolved sooner if someone very senior had chosen to take the final decision into their own hands. They didn’t, so, the group agreed on a shared solution that they could all commit to.

I shouldn’t have been struck by this level of professionalism and mutual respect; looking back it seems like very reasonable, productive behaviour.

At the time though, I had often seen (in other places) vastly different behaviours from those observed on that day.

People only listening to their own points of view, pulling rank, and occasionally walking out.

Jump forward to 2023.

I was delivering a blended learning programme on customer experience.

During a face-to-face session, we were discussing empathy and we looked at how researchers often name it as a critical business skill.

One of the learners in the session asked me: “Why is empathy emerging so strongly, now?”

It was a great question.

And there’s not just one answer to it:

  • The evidence base for the positive outcomes of practising empathy (in the workplace and outside) has been growing, for some time. ❤️

  • Empathy is not a new thing. However, it might be something we are getting better at articulating. 🫶

  • It’s one of the outcomes of the pandemic. 😷

Lots of major changes are often attributed to historical events, and with good reason – if there were ever events that caused us to step back and think, surely the pandemic was one of those.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic blurring the lines between our work and home lives, empathy in the workplace has helped organisations to navigate the boundaries of work and home and support employees at this time of crisis.

Empathy is an important business skill that increases retention, drives innovation and supports employees’ wellbeing, especially during times of crisis. It is not a so-called soft skill, but rather a hard business skill that impacts an organisation’s bottom line”.

Allyson Zimmermann, Catalyst

When times are challenging, the right human skills in the right places will make a massive difference.

The beauty of empathy as a workplace skill is in how much of a difference it can make:

  • It’s valuable in tough situations (as Allyson Zimmermann notes) and during business as usual (if such a state exists). It makes communications clearer, enables buy-in and consensus and can prevent time/energy-wasting conflicts.

  • It drives professional behaviour. You don’t need to agree with someone to empathise with them. The point is to understand their perspective and what drives it.

  • It’s easy to apply if you want to. Although listening and suspending judgement aren’t always intuitive ways to behave, they become more natural with just a little practice.

Is empathy having its moment now?

Multiple studies have looked at how empathic organisations and leaders appear to be and the impact that empathy can have on their success.

Empathy in the Workplace A Tool for Effective Leadership By: William A. Gentry, Todd J. Weber, and Golnaz Sadri is a notable example.

Do we know whether empathy is on the rise and whether positive relationships between colleagues and group behaviours will become the norm?

That’s up to all of us in the workplace to decide.

As Tracy Bowers shows, empathy is not a blip or a fad. It has the power to make the workplace a better, more productive place to be.

And that power is with all of us.

The Motivation Agency has been supporting businesses in their employee engagement journey since 2006. Our online course Em-Path Online has been designed by experts in workplace relationships and learning, in collaboration with leaders, managers and frontline colleagues across a variety of industries.

Ian Luxford

Ian Luxford

Learning and Engagement Specialist

Qualified to master’s level in education, organisational development and learning technologies, Ian has over thirty years of experience in creating employee engagement solutions across diverse industry sectors.