Jobs and the Future of Work

3 ways being empathetic can make you more productive at work

Workers look from the Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council Offices in Rotherham, northern England, February 4, 2015. Rotherham's council leader and entire cabinet resigned after the publication of a report into their response to  years of child sexual exploitation in the town. The report said the authority was not fit for purpose and had been in complete denial after an earlier inquiry found that 1400 children, some as young as 11, were abused in Rotherham, by gangs of predominantly Asian men. REUTERS/Darren Staples   (BRITAIN - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - LM1EB241E5601

We mistakenly think a lack of productivity means employees just don't care. Image: REUTERS/Darren Staples

Elizabeth Yuko
Writer, Big Think
Share:
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Jobs and the Future of Work?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Values is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Values

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.

Have you read?

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.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkLeadershipEducation and Skills
Share:
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

The care economy is one of humanity's most valuable assets. Here's how we secure its future

Kim Piaget

May 21, 2024

About Us

Events

Media

Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum