How to Display Sympathy and Empathy in the Workplace

Sophia Koustas is an Instructor in Organizational Leadership

Sophia Koustas '06 teaches organizational leadership at Southern New Hampshire University. She recently presented #empathy #2017: The New Trend in Leadership as part of the Office of Alumni Engagement's 2017 Business Indicator Series for the SNHU Community.

According to author and consultant Justin Bariso, empathy is a key element that continues to challenge leaders. In an Inc. article on the topic, Bariso notes "although many consider empathy to be a basic human quality, it's often still missing in our day-to-day lives." A lot of it has to do with the confusion between sympathy and empathy, and how those two qualities play out in professional and personal environments.

Koustas queried alumni attendees at the Business Indicator Series if there can be too much empathy and if so, what effect that might have in the workplace. While certain professions naturally gravitate to what can be perceived as empathetic roles, such as in health and wellness, education and social services, Koustas emphasized its importance across all industries, particularly in management and leadership roles. When leaders embrace empathy, it can prove transformational and enhance engagement, which ultimately improves team performance and fosters trust in leadership, she said.

Post-event, Koustas responded to some questions related to this timely topic:

Do you think people understand the difference between sympathy and empathy in the workplace?

Although the two words sound the same, they mean two different things. Empathy is when you feel and understand someone's feelings, attitudes, and experiences. It is the understanding of other's experiences with everyday life events. Sympathy is related to feeling sorry for another person's grief and troubles. Being empathetic in the workplace sometimes may be perceived as being too "soft." Caring and understanding do not have to be that complicated.

How can we best show empathy for others in a professional setting?

Empathy can be incorporated in our daily professional and personal lives in many different ways. It is an ongoing process. The following are just some suggestions of how to incorporate empathy in a professional setting:

  1. Viewing a situation in terms of how others feel, from a different perspective, but without getting so emotionally invested
  2. Being objective
  3. Balancing empathy in such a way that organizational results are met without burdening well-being
  4. Establishing rapport with colleagues
  5. Showing reasonable concern and support for colleagues in every way possible to help them perform and grow
  6. Practicing active listening without interrupting and reflective listening by paraphrasing
  7. Avoiding quick judgment
  8. Using appropriate non-verbal cues
  9. Validating the other people's perspective (this does not mean agreement, but simply that you understand where they are coming from)

While some industries are far more empathetic by nature, how important is empathy in an organization - and is there a difference in how that empathy is demonstrated with employees vs. customers?

An organization either is or isn't empathetic. Ideally, empathy should be demonstrated top-down in the organizational hierarchy, and this will certainly show in both the employees (at an internal level) but also with respect to the relationship between the employee and customer. Empathy becomes a part of the culture.

Is this an area that particularly interests you and if so, why?

Empathy interests me because on several occasions I have found myself wondering if our world would be slightly different if we would all just try to understand and listen. I try to practice empathy in my professional and personal life because I believe that it can help improve communication, relationships, and processes. It is an area that is of interest to me not only intellectually, but mostly for its practical application in our environments.

As an instructor for organizational leadership, how does empathy tie into that role, both in your everyday dealings with students and within the context of organizational leadership itself?

Empathy is neither a downloadable program nor a certification program. Empathy is a lifelong journey of improving ourselves. I try to incorporate empathy in my communication with my students and foster a learning environment that leaves room for that "other perspective" of understanding to be discussed. Scenario based examples are very helpful in incorporating empathy in both the traditional and virtual classroom.

What most appeals to you about organizational leadership as a subject matter to teach others about?

Tough question! Organizational Leadership has a lot to offer and is multifaceted. Leadership, ethics, communication, employee motivation, and change are of great interest to me. It is amazing to see the extent to which a leader can influence an organization and its stakeholders. Ethical considerations and dilemmas are part of daily interactions and transactions in any organization. Effective communication, key in the overall operations of an organization, and understanding what inspires people to be motivated are integral components in the implementation of change. Each is connected to each other and when strategically synthesized can create a powerhouse of an organization!

Learn more about upcoming alumni events and other ways to become engaged in the SNHU community by visiting alumni.snhu.edu/community-events.

Pamme Boutselis is a writer and content director in higher education. Follow her on Twitter @pammeb or connect on LinkedIn.

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