When we think about productivity at work, things like meeting deadlines and producing deliverables come to mind. And while those certainly can be aspects of productivity, many of us overlook how empathy comes into play.
Not only does empathy come with some serious, science-backed mental and physical health benefits, it can also make our work lives more enjoyable and more productive. We spoke with two empathy experts on how, exactly, we can harness the power of empathy to improve our productivity. Here are three tips anyone can try:
It can help explain changes in behavior, allowing you to course-correct
Between parenting challenges, caregiving, or other personal issues, there's a lot that can distract us at work, making us less productive, Helen Riess, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences, tells Thrive.
"One of the biggest mistakes that leaders can make is to assume that a lack of productivity or a lack of engagement is due to not caring about the work, or a lack of understanding the importance of a job," she explains. By using a lens of empathy, Riess says, managers can pinpoint their specific productivity issues and figure out how to deal with it to ensure that the employee is thriving in their position.
Riess gave the example of a scenario of when a member of a team is consistently not meeting deadlines, which results in the rest of the team growing frustrated. In this case, if the manager checks in with the person who is struggling to see what's going on in their life — before they judge them and their work performance — it gives the person a chance to explain that they are caring for a sick parent. Once they find this out, the manager can then provide the person with additional guidance and give the team the opportunity to step up and fill in or show compassion in other ways, helping team productivity by making sure deadlines are met and work is completed.
It decreases misunderstandings and conflicts
Nothing can derail a project or task at work like a misunderstanding, but using empathy as a way of understanding emotions and motivations can help, Karla McLaren, author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life's Most Essential Skill and founder of empathyacademy.org, tells Thrive.
"So many workplace hassles stem from a lack of perspective-taking, or an attempt to avoid emotions — which is impossible," she explains. "Skilled empathy — which includes a capacity for emotion regulation — can strengthen relationships, help people weather conflicts, and increase understanding and compassion throughout the workplace." For example, many studies, particularly of the health care workplace, suggest that empathically skilled workers increase patient satisfaction, reduce stress and conflict, and help practitioners and clients feel that they are effective, heard, and valuable, McLaren says.
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A 2007 study found that physicians who are empathetic with patients during what can be emotionally charged conflicts during their treatment have the ability to reduce anger and frustration in the interaction. This logic can be applied to conflicts between co-workers as well. When we demonstrate that we're taking the time and energy to understand our colleague's challenges or perspectives on something, it may help to de-escalate situations that may otherwise have gotten heated, taking away from the productivity at their workplace.
It helps us give & receive feedback more effectively
Giving and receiving feedback at work is an important part of productivity, allowing us to make adjustments as needed to improve at our job. At Thrive, we're all about compassionate directness when it comes to feedback, and empathy is a big part of that.
One way to incorporate empathy into giving feedback is to start with a question like, "How do you think things are going?" or, "How are things going for you?", according to Riess. This may allow someone to open up about an area in which they're struggling, which may be hurting their productivity. "To begin with a question instead of 'Can I give you some constructive feedback?' sets the tone of openness and curiosity," she adds.
Another option, Riess says, is to ask a person how they'd prefer to receive feedback — whether that means writing it out in an email, talking about it in person, or discussing over the phone. "Just knowing what channel they receive feedback in the best [is helpful] because sometimes people need to digest it a little bit before they can talk about it," she explains.