Empathy has climbed the corporate agenda as one of the most in-demand workplace skills, and it’s easy to see why. Research shows that people who work in empathetic workplaces are more productive, have better work-life balance and enjoy their jobs more. 

And yet, despite the heightened focus on cultivating empathy, translating this aspiration into practical implementation is proving challenging. According to one study from the University of Michigan, the American population is 40% less empathetic than 10 years ago. 

Empathy Week, a global program that uses the power of film to develop the skill of empathy, echoes these sentiments. Whilst working with organizations that range from the legal to health sector, they’ve anonymously surveyed hundreds of employees to gauge their self-perceived empathy levels and their perception of empathy in others. 

“I’ve surveyed hundreds of employees and, every time, the pattern is the same,” says Ed Kirwan, founder and CEO of the company. “When given a chance to complete a 5-star rating, individuals consistently rate themselves as more empathetic (4 out of 5) than others (3 out of 5), highlighting that none of us are as empathetic as we think.”

The Empathy Enigma 

As the empathy gap widens, employees are bearing the brunt. Research from FutureForum shows workplace burnout is at an all-time high, while a study from EY found that 50% of people are looking for new jobs because they don’t feel like they belong at work. 

But it’s not that companies aren’t trying to embrace empathy. Instead, according to Kirwan, they don’t truly understand what it is. 

“Empathy is often misdefined as simply showing emotion to people in need or experiencing the emotions of another person, but it’s more multifaceted and nuanced than that,” he explains. “True empathy necessitates self-awareness. It is essential to acknowledge that when we try to empathize with others, our own lives inevitably introduce biases that differ from theirs.”

It’s a notion that echoes the insights of vulnerability researcher Brene Brown. After years of equating empathy with "walking in someone else's shoes," Brown finally recognized the limitations of this perspective. As she notes in her book, Atlas of the Heart: “Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.”

Kirwan concurs with this viewpoint. He defines empathy as the the skill to understand another person and the ability to create space for someone to reveal their authentic self whilst reserving judgment. 

Empaths vs empathy 

Notably, Kirwan and researchers worldwide emphasize that empathy is a skill: a facet of emotional intelligence that can be learned and improved rather than a core personality trait. 

But, at the same time, research shows that some people are indeed naturally more empathetic than others, finding it easier to navigate emotionally-charged situations with wisdom and grace. The reason? It might come down to our core personalities. 

“Within the 16-type system, Feeling types may be more likely to score higher on the emotional intelligence factors of Empathy and Social Awareness since they are naturally more attuned to others' emotional states,” shares Megan Malone, personality researcher at Truity. 

But while some Feeling types may identify as empaths, they can experience struggles with emotional regulation. This could hinder their attempts to be empathetic and harm their wellbeing. 

“Emotional Control is the ability to regulate and manage one's own emotions. Some Feeling types may get so lost in what other people want and need they find it difficult to identify their own desires,” Malone continues. “These people can benefit from taking time to develop their self-awareness by identifying what they value, want, and need.”

This reinforces Kirwan’s view that empathy is just as much about understanding ourselves as it is about others. Indeed, compassion, without a solid foundation of self-compassion, only exacerbates some common misconceptions around behaving empathetically. 

For example, it feeds the notion that empathy is all about caring too much, feeling too deeply and experiencing emotional contagion. While these traits are often associated with empaths, the practice of empathy is distinct. True empathy is less about absorbing others' emotions and more about providing a space for them to share their thoughts and feelings. When this happens, workplaces thrive.

"Empathy creates an environment where everyone, including yourself, experiences that profound sense of being seen, heard and understood. When we achieve this magical trio in the workplace, we foster a culture of belonging. That’s true inclusion," affirms Kirwan.

The workplace has work to do 

In order to develop empathy in the corporate world, companies need to up their game. Business Solver’s annual empathy study showed that 91% of CEOs say that their organizations are compassionate, but only 68% of employees agree. 

Given that 57% of us would switch to a lower pay grade to work for a more empathetic company, underestimating the significance of empathy at work is a risky game indeed. 

As an antidote to this problem, experts advise organizations to rethink how they approach empathy training. Rather than treating it as a tick-box exercise, they need to embed empathetic conversations into daily workflows. 

“Creating space and allowing for personal discussions, such as asking about someone's weekend or hobbies, are vital,” Kirwan notes. “At the heart of it, business is conducted between people, not just companies. However, the lack of time and the failure to perceive empathy as important prevent us from investing in these meaningful interactions.” 

What you can do 

In an ideal world, empathy would be a top-down endeavor. But we’re not all blessed to work for high EQ bosses. The good news, though, is that we can lead by example. By fostering empathy in our own spheres of influence, we can contribute to its spread throughout the workplace.

After all, like all facets of emotional intelligence, empathy is a skill to be learned and improved, and our experts have offered valuable advice on how to get started. 

“Those who struggle to understand and relate to the emotional experiences of others can work on developing their empathy by practicing active listening, asking questions and pausing to consider another person's perspective before responding,” shares Malone. “Research also shows that developing a growth mindset can help with developing empathy. People who believe that they can become more empathic are more likely to make an effort and eventually see long-term results.”

Kirwan affirms that curiosity is vital to cultivating empathy, adding that people should get out of their comfort zones and embrace new perspectives to enhance emotional intelligence.

He states: “The diversity of experiences we expose ourselves to plays a significant role in developing empathy, even in the digital world. Consider the suggestions presented to you by algorithms, for example. If you genuinely want to cultivate empathy, I encourage you to diversify your news sources.” 

While cultivating empathy requires proactive effort rather than relying on innate traits, the hard work is well worth the reward. Research shows that people with higher empathy skills experience higher self-esteem, reduced likelihood of burnout and more purpose in their lives.

Beyond that, by nurturing empathy, you’ll likely see your relationships at work and home improve. 

“Over time, you’ll notice your workplace relationships flourish,” concludes Kirwan. “There will be a sense of connection, and your colleagues will genuinely want to support you because you’ve fulfilled their human need to be seen, heard and understood.”

Hannah Pisani
Hannah Pisani is a freelance writer based in London, England. A type 9 INFP, she is passionate about harnessing the power of personality theory to better understand herself and the people around her - and wants to help others do the same. When she's not writing articles, you'll find her composing songs at the piano, advocating for people with learning difficulties, or at the pub with friends and a bottle (or two) of rose.