7 Steps to Building Empathy in Yourself and in the Workplace

The following is adapted from Eric Girard’s new book, “Lead Like A Pro – The Essential Guide for New Managers,” (GTS Press, 2023)

The days when managers needed to be tough teams to establish their authority are gone. Caring about your people and their well-being is the key to creating an inclusive and equitable workplace and, therefore, a more productive team.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another without judgment, regardless of your own personal experience. Empathy differs from “sympathy,” which is simply feeling bad for someone, like the poor guy who spilled his Grande Mocha on his laptop. When you practice empathy, you can see a situation from the other’s point of view.

The Business Case for Empathy

Empathy results in a healthy work environment and a positive impact on innovation, performance, retention, and engagement, especially in times of crisis. Substantial research supports this. Just one example, a 2021 study from Catalyst, as reported in Forbes Magazine, confirms empathy creates such constructive outcomes as:

  • Innovation – 61 percent of team members reported they were more likely to be innovative when their managers were empathetic, compared to 13 percent of employees with less empathetic managers.
  • Engagement – 76 percent of people with empathetic managers reported they were engaged, compared to only 32 percent with less empathetic management.
  • Retention – 57 percent of white women and 62 percent of women of color said they were unlikely to think of leaving their companies when they felt their life circumstances were respected and valued.
  • Inclusivity – 50 percent of people with empathetic managers reported their workplace was inclusive, compared to only 17 percent with less empathetic management.

With this in mind, it’s important for managers to understand that developing an empathetic mindset doesn’t happen by accident—it requires intentionality. The good news is that empathy can be learned. 

Seven Steps to Building Empathy

Step 1: Be Self Aware. If you’re aware of your own emotions, you’re better able to connect with and detect the emotions of others. To build self-awareness, consider mindfulness and meditation exercises. For instance, if you’re going into a difficult conversation with a team member, do an easy breathing exercise to help you transition, focus, and be present. Clear your mind to take in what the other person has to say and understand their perspective. You’ll connect with them on a deeper level, with tremendous personal and professional benefits for you both.

Step 2: Acknowledge Your Biases. Biases are often unconscious, so speaking to others can be a simple and effective way to confront them. Listening to what situations or issues others face puts a sharp focus on things you don’t need to worry about in daily life but others may. For example, do you ever worry about your race, religion, ethnicity, or gender in a work or social setting? If you don’t, understand that many other people do.

Step 3: Embrace Simple Kindness. In 10 Leadership Virtues for Disruptive Times, Tom Ziglar offers this gem: “Develop kindness until it becomes an automatic response.” A simple way to begin the kindness habit is to monitor yourself for unkind acts and thoughts and refocus toward kindness. If that sounds too “woo woo,” there is help. Shaunti Feldhahn (renowned author on human relationships) developed a “Thirty Day Kindness Challenge” to help people train themselves. When her team implemented the challenge in various workplaces, they found that 89 percent of relationships improved.

Step 5: Practice Active Listening. Active listening involves a conscious effort to hear more than the other person’s words – listening for the complete message being communicated. This requires paying attention to the other person carefully—you can’t be distracted by whatever else may be happening around you, your thoughts, or by forming counterarguments while the other person is speaking. Nor can you allow yourself to get bored and lose focus.

Step 6: Exercise Your Empathy Muscles. Just like an athlete who practices their sport gets better, you can practice empathy. Some ideas:

  • Seek out experiences where you’re uncomfortable and need to “walk a mile in the other’s shoes.”
  • Open yourself to people – and what they have to say. There’s no other way to understand how someone else feels about a situation than to ask them. Practice with a colleague or a neighbor to go beyond small talk and ask about their life.
  • On social media, try following people with different backgrounds and diverse perspectives.
  • Visit someone else’s church, volunteer in a different community, or connect with a political movement that is unfamiliar to you.
  • Engage in hard conversations. Uncomfortable conversations expose us to different points of view, making us better decision-makers and leaders of diverse teams. The keys here are learning to listen, being open to learning new things that change the way you think, and respecting.

Step 7: Remember the Little Things. Ultimately, people need to feel they are valued as human beings. You can do that in little ways that are incredibly easy:

  • Check-in with your team members at the beginning of each meeting to see how they are and discuss their life outside of work. It could be family, sports, travel, whatever they’re comfortable talking about, or simply asking how they are doing.
  • Create space for real conversations. Go for a walk with your team members, or just call them to check in and see how they are doing without an agenda or work topic.
  • Organize team activities. Bring everyone together to get to know each other, build trust, have fun, and bond.
  • Celebrate birthdays or life events. Missing these can be disengaging for team members.
  • Never underestimate the power of a handwritten note. Few things can make a team member feel valued and appreciated more than a personal note from their supervisor.
Eric Girard
Eric Girard is the CEO of Girard Training Solutions. He has helped Fortune 500 companies improve the performance of managers and employees for more than 30 years, specializing in developing new managers and their team management skills.