Empathy is identified as one of Matter’s top soft skills that is linked to performance and career success. Contrary to popular belief, soft skills like empathy can also be learned and developed just like any hard skills. Matter helps professionals tease out blindspots and areas for growth in skills like empathy through regular peer-to-peer feedback.

What Is Empathy

Definition of Empathy: Possesses the ability to connect with other people’s thoughts and emotions.

Empathy is about understanding your peers and your team, and how you can use that deep, personal understanding to grow productivity, increase innovation, and maintain retention. When you have true empathy for those around you, you don’t merely understand how they feel, but you feel it along with them. It makes you better able to respond to issues and faster to resolve problems.

Empathetic Leaders You May Know

Neil Blumenthal: Eyeglasses company Warby Parker is no stranger to empathy. Started by four friends, the company has two CEOs, the better to understand both their customers and their employees. Early on, the team at Warby Parker committed to a culture of feedback where communication is open and honest. It is a culture where leaders are unlikely to deliver top-down marching orders from judgments formed in isolation. Blumenthal emphasizes to his team that he wanted, “managers to care deeply about the people who work for them.”

Natalie Egan: It’s no accident that Egan founded Translator, a company dedicated to diversity and inclusion. Shortly after being fired, losing her marriage, and transitioning as a transgender, she was on the receiving end of hate speech. She said she thought “if they only knew my story; if they only knew what I had been through and what I have done to try and fit in for the last forty years, and how I’ve hurt other people trying to fit in - if they knew all of that they wouldn’t judge me that way.’ That was the ‘ah-ha’ moment.” Her company provides tools to companies so they can have safe, anonymous discussions to facilitate empathy at scale.

Daniel Lubetzky: Founder of KIND, the healthy-friendly snack company that encourages consumers to “do the kind thing,” Lubetzky takes empathy to heart. Rather than making assumptions, he strives to ask the other person - peer or customer - where they’re coming from. He says that he assumes positive intent from his team, which builds trust and promotes productive interactions. “If you can ask yourself questions like, ‘where is this person coming from?’ then you’re able to get to a more productive place quicker, thereby creating value for business and society.”

Why Empathy Is Important

  • Trust: Empathy is a two-way street. As you take an interest in others and put yourself in their shoes, you’re building trust. Trust takes a leap of faith, but the rewards are endless.
  • Team Retention: Empathy for your teams will win you their confidence and loyalty. Confident and happy employees are less likely to churn.
  • Productivity: Empathy for your teams and peers helps a leader to better understand their strengths and weaknesses, allocating resources to the right places at the right times. This efficiency and deep understanding lead a team to peak productivity.

What Empathy Thinking Isn’t About

  • Sympathy: Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy. In the former you feel emotions alongside your team members, but in the latter, you simply feel bad for them. One is about protective and caring and the other is aloof and detached.
  • Being Nice: Empathy doesn’t mean you are a carpet to be walked all over. You can be empathetic and still offer constructive feedback.
  • Doing Someone Else’s Work: An empathetic leader inspires others to perform at their best, understanding their limitations and working to help them improve. It’s not about doing their job for them.

Abilities That Lead To The Mastery of Empathy

Avoiding assumptions: To truly support someone, you must first understand what that person is going through. Empathetic people take the time to understand the other person’s priorities, preferences, and motivations. This requires listening non-judgmentally and leaving your assumptions at the door.

Being flexible with others: Flexibility is the capacity to adjust to changes quickly and calmly so that you can deal with unexpected problems or tasks effectively. The key to being flexible is having an open, team-centered attitude. People with an orientation towards flexibility never say, ”It’s not my job” or ”Do I have to?” when they are asked to take on a new assignment.

Being patient: Impatience is a habit, and so is patience. Impulsive decisions are rarely the right ones. Studies have shown that patient people make more progress towards their goals and are more satisfied when they achieve them.

Being supportive: The more supportive you are, the more inclined people will be to share things honestly with you. Studies have shown that people perform better when they feel supported by their company.

Caring: Make sure your peers know you have a sincere interest in their well-being. Take time to know each of your peers as a person. Learn about their health, family, financial stability, hobbies, and aspirations. Genuine caring results in positive attitudes and behaviors toward the organization.

Imagining others’ point of view: Being able to empathize means to be capable of identifying and understanding another person’s feelings, without experiencing them for yourself at that particular moment. It’s the ability to literally experience the world from another person’s perspective and to feel what it feels like to be that person.

Showing appreciation: Appreciation is a fundamental human need. A recent study revealed that more than 80 percent of employees say they are motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation.

Showing friendliness: A growing body of evidence suggests that a person’s likability accounts for more than 90% of first impressions compared to competency-related skills. To increase your perceived friendliness, the easiest thing you can do is to smile more. Learn to initiate conversations. Be the first to say hello and make greeting others a norm.

Explore Roles That Benefit From Empathy

Who can benefit from practicing empathy? Matter is helping professionals at all levels get actionable feedback to improve their empathy.

  • CEOs who are looking to become better leaders and cultivate company culture
  • Designers who want to grow their professional and soft skills
  • Freelancers who work without a traditional team and want feedback
  • Project Managers looking to improve their cross-functional collaboration skills
  • Software Engineers who aspire to become a tech lead or manager

Explore Complementary Skills to Empathy

Empathy shouldn’t be practiced in a vacuum. Improve your empathy by exploring and developing these complementary skills.

  • Leadership: Leads, motivates, and inspires your team and/or company
  • Listening: Attends to the speaker in a way that displays interest and enthusiasm
  • Inclusiveness: Creates an environment that values individual and group differences
  • Supportiveness: Listens and provides help for individuals or teams in an encouraging, sensitive manner
  • User Research: Uses investigative methods to understand and empathize with customers

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