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Empathy in the Workplace - The Disconnect Between Executives & Employees





Having empathy is not the same thing as demonstrating empathy.


This is a crucial distinction as we aim to create a culture of empathy together a home and at work.


Most people know what empathy is, but what does it actually sound like in practice?

How do you “do empathy”?


With knowledge and practice (lots of practice), we can turn empathy blind spots into opportunities to connect more deeply with our humanity and leverage the power of diversity to increase organizational agility, productivity and well-being.


"Five years of data from the Businessolver® State of Workplace Empathy Study demonstrates the impact and increasing importance of empathetic leaders. Now is the time for leaders, and especially executives, to proactively address the empathy blind spots in their organizations. As organizations adapt to massive and unprecedented change from the global pandemic and whiplash economy, their leaders find themselves subject to heightened scrutiny for their responses to the human and financial costs of our current landscape. Data from Businessolver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study underscores leaders’ unique position going forward: Chief Executive Officers must play a dual role, serving as CEO AND Chief Empathy Officer." - Businessolver

The following four points are from Businessolver's 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Special Reports Workplace Empathy: What Leaders Don’t Know Can Hurt Them and Empathy + Benefits: The Key Combination for Supporting Employee Mental Health:

1) There’s a disconnect between how executives envision workplace empathy and how their employees actually experience it.

  • Only 48% of employees believe companies as a whole are empathetic, versus 68% of CEOs.

  • 91% of CEOs say their company is empathetic, but only 68% of employees agree.

  • Only 45% of employees view CEOs in general as empathetic, versus 87% of CEOs; 63% of employees say their own CEOs are empathetic.

2) With workers facing extreme uncertainty over physical health, job security and more, anxiety and mental health issues demand attention from leaders.

  • 86% of CEOs think their organization is openly discussing mental health, versus 58% of employees.

  • 92% of employees say companies should do more for the overall wellbeing and needs of their workers.

  • 96% of employees believe mental health is as important as physical health, yet over three-quarters (76%) say employers view someone with a mental health issue as a burden.

  • 97% of CEOs say all levels of their organization are empathetic to employees’ mental health, but only 69% of employees agree.

3) Leaders often underestimate or risk missing out on empathy’s impact on their organization to succeed or recover. Today’s employees see empathy as a key driver of their productivity.

  • 76% of employees believe an organization’s empathy drives productivity; only 52% of CEOs agree.

  • 70% of employees credit higher empathy for driving lower turnover rates; only 40% of CEOs do.

  • Just over 50% of CEOs agreed that empathy inspired productivity and motivation, however, 82% believe a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy which calls out the disconnect related to the impact of workplace empathy.

4) Employees’ mental health was a significant issue before the pandemic, but now it’s front and center and must be addressed. Our entire workforce is grappling with new risks and severe economic turmoil, all of which affect mental well-being.

  • 96% of employees say that mental health is just as important as physical health, yet 64% also say that if someone at their company reached out about a mental health issue, it could put their job at risk.

  • 92% of employees and 100% of HR professionals think organizations should be doing more for overall well-being and needs of their employees.

"Organizations must now find empathetic and effective ways to support the mental health and overall well-being of this diverse workforce." - Businessolver


Research shows that empathy is not a trait. Empathy is a skill that must be learned and practiced.


Even though many people have empathy for others, most of us were never taught how to demonstrate empathy - what empathy actually sounds like in practice. So, it's common for us to use automatic and default responses that do not demonstrate empathy:


• Unsolicited Advice - We suggest a solution because we think we know what’s best for someone.

• Storytelling - We make what someone shares about ourselves.

• Judgment - We evaluate what someone shares as good, bad, right or wrong.

• Sarcasm - We make light of what someone shares.

• Pity / Sympathy - We feel bad for someone.

• One-Upping - We compare someone’s pain / problem to a worse scenario.

• Problem-Solving - We try to fix, save or rescue someone from their pain / problem.

• Interrupting - We cut someone off mid sentence.

• Contradiction - We share an opposing viewpoint.

• Generalization - We assume we know people without all of the information.

• Silence - We don’t know what to say or disregard the importance of what someone shares.

• Projection - We express our fears and opinions about what someone shares.

• Blame - We accuse someone of something.


We've all responded in some of those ways and we're not wrong or bad for doing so. We all did the best we could with what we knew at the time, and we can always do better.


Our society's mental health related issues are in part connected to those automatic responses. Even with the best of intentions, in subtle and often unconscious ways, we don't really listen to people. If we do, we still frequently don't respond in ways that intentionally let people know, "I see you. I hear you. I value you. I understand you. I respect you. Your concerns matter. Your perspective matters. You matter."


Every action we take and don't takes plus every word we speak and don't speak creates culture.

There are 5 conflict management styles - accommodating, avoiding, compromising, collaborating and competing. It's common in business to avoid and compete because those styles eliminate threats by diminishing or refusing to see other perspectives. They reject potentially opposing ideas to forward agendas with force. This can leave team members feeling undervalued, unconsidered and unsafe to share their ideas. Applied empathy shifts us to a collaborative frame where we gain buy-in from team members without compromising the agenda.


Everything that made you successful today is now exactly what's holding you back from your next level of success.

As we make the shift to more conscious relationships where we value authenticity, transparency / honesty, empathy, boundaries, vulnerability, intellectual humility, consent, integrity, ownership, psychological safety and inner work, it's important to distinguish between empathy the noun and empathy the verb. Having empathy is not the same thing as demonstrating empathy.


Empathy (noun):

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.


Applied Empathy (verb):

Demonstrating that you understand another person's point of view so completely that their nervous system relaxes because they feel you get it and know they're not alone.


We need to practice walking our talk. Within the context of empathy in the workplace that means practicing listening and responding in ways that demonstrate empathy so that we intentionally create safety and connection. We need top levels leaders to role model the workplace culture they talk about. Psychological safety has to be role modelled more than talked about.


"The best leaders give feedback and take in feedback, being courageous enough to say, 'This is what I'm working on, help me be better.'" - William A. Gentry

Applied Empathy in the Workplace


I customize experiential Applied Empathy Workshops where participants put into practice skills and mindsets that support the creation of a culture of empathy and an environment of psychological safety. My aim is deliver an engaging workshop that combines theory with practice.


Applied empathy training can be tailored to the domains of leadership, customer service, teams, sales, mental health and love relationships:

  • Validate complaints and objections with tact

  • Intentionally cultivate trust, psychological safety and connection to support difficult and courageous conversations

  • Deconstruct and navigate conflict with greater ease and confidence.

  • Develop emotional intelligence - Utilize empathy, self-regulation, and social skills to reduce stress and tension in all relationships.

  • Stop yourself from being sucked into unnecessary drama and conflict, reduce stress and promote mutual support.

  • Integrate as part of your mental health initiative to address wellness and harassment/discrimination prevention.

  • Foster understanding that supports buy-in, influence and change leadership (shift from force to power).

  • Develop employee-employer relations;

  • Increase productivity by understanding and communicating healthy boundaries.

  • Turn disagreement into opportunities for self-development.

  • Learn practical strategies to help you respond more skillfully to pressure, stress and complexity.

  • Identify patterns, triggers and emotional habits that influence your performance.

  • Learn the art of giving and receiving feedback so it's received without defensiveness.

  • Build diversity and inclusion capacities that lead to greater collaboration, turning "enemies" into supportive allies.


Contact Brian for a no-obligation conversation to learn more about how an applied empathy workshop or coaching could be customized to meet the needs of your team, group or organization: brian.tohana@gmail.com


To dive deeper, check out some of my other blog articles:

14 Ways to Create Psychological Safety

The Future of Business is Deliberately Developmental


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