Empathy, a widely recognized virtue, has struggled to translate to the workplace. Despite being considered a crucial element of leadership success by 80% of CEOs, the practical application of empathy sometimes remains elusive. Fortunately, new research from the O.C. Tanner Institute in the 2024 Global Culture Report helps us define the practice of practical empathy, outlining how it can be harnessed to improve employee engagement, business outcomes, and overall workplace culture.
41% of employees feel their leaders’ expressions of empathy are empty of meaningful deeds.
—2024 Global Culture Report
The current state of workplace empathy
In early 2023, the tech industry witnessed a wave of layoffs that starkly contrasted the ideal of empathy preached by many organizations. Some handled terminations with compassion, addressing employees' emotions, assisting with benefits, and helping them find new positions. Others resorted to mass emails or Zoom meetings, raising questions about the authenticity of their commitment to empathy.
This disconnect between rhetoric and action highlights the need to reevaluate empathy's role in the workplace.
Empathy, on its own, is merely a shared feeling and often falls short in resolving workplace issues effectively. To bridge this gap, business leaders should embrace practical empathy.
What is practical empathy?
Practical empathy combines understanding with action, focusing on identifying and meeting employee needs. The key is to translate empathy into meaningful steps that address employees' concerns and challenges. Leaders who model practical empathy prioritize individuals, listen actively, embrace diverse perspectives, take supportive action, and respect boundaries.
Unfortunately, research reveals that only 59% of employees perceive their leaders' expressions of empathy as accompanied by meaningful action and support. However, when leaders and organizations do act on empathetic intentions, employees report higher engagement, fulfillment, and connection.
The six elements of practical empathy
To create a people-centered culture, organizations must champion practical empathy, seek employee feedback, and lead with action. Our research identified six active components to practical empathy in the workplace:
- Focus on the person
- Seek understanding
- Listen to learn
- Embrace perspectives
- Take supportive action
- Respect boundaries
A culture of practical empathy is rooted in understanding employee experiences, inviting feedback, and taking supportive actions to meet employees' psychological needs for autonomy, mastery, and connection. When both leaders and organizations are perceived as empathetic, employees report increased fulfillment at work, greater satisfaction with workplace culture, and a desire to stay longer.
Leaders can develop practical empathy regardless of their background or experiences. Transparency and a commitment to understanding the needs of employees can foster empathy even among leaders with no direct experience in an employee's role.
Boundaries are essential to sustaining practical empathy, ensuring that leaders—who are typically not behavioral health professionals—do not become overwhelmed by emotional demands. Organizations can support leaders by providing external resources such as mental health services and counseling. These resources do not negatively affect employees' perceptions of leaders—in fact, they can enhance trust and connection.
Practical empathy, as discussed in greater detail in this year’s Global Culture Report, offers a grounded approach to empathy in the workplace. It focuses on the action taken as a result of listening to employees. This action leads to improved employee engagement and business outcomes. By prioritizing understanding and action, organizations can foster a culture of empathy that supports leaders and helps employees thrive.
For more insights on practical empathy, and the latest research on global workplace trends, read our 2024 Global Culture Report.