November 5, 2023

If You've Ever Experienced Meanness at Work, Here's What to Do

Ecstatic about buying her first London flat, a young woman forgot her No. 1 rule at work: Never divulge anything personal. In the joy of her purchase, she couldn’t contain herself. Her happiness dissolved instantly when one colleague retorted with a particularly nasty comment about her new neighborhood. His mean-spirited response reinforced her resolve to protect herself at all costs.

It seems we’re living through an epidemic of meanness. In a recent article, David Brooks argued that society’s turn toward individualism, at the expense of community, has left America isolated, lonely, morally bankrupt and mean. We lash out with impunity and without regard for anyone.

And the workplace is not immune. Burnout and disaffection are rampant. Colleagues are isolated and disconnected. Leaders and employees are at odds, with simmering disputes over where and how to work reaching the boiling point. But there’s one seemingly small, but incredibly powerful, thing that can change all this—empathy. Across all racial and gender groups, people who had empathetic bosses were 58% more likely to feel valued and respected at work.

Empathy is a powerful way to prevent meanness and promote connection. Most people wrongly think of it as a personality trait—you either have or you don’t. But the hard truth is, if you don’t have it, it’s because you never learned it. Empathy is not just a feeling. It’s a skill you can cultivate, with practice and patience. It’s rarely talked about at work, but it’s something every company should have a plan to systematically grow organization-wide. Why? Well, first because it’s the “not mean” thing to do and, second, because the payoff is immense. Empathy is the key to building an inclusive culture and producing high-performing teams. Research also shows that empathic companies make more money and grow faster.

If your workplace is mean, here’s a quick primer on how to fix it by growing empathy in your organization.

Connection Trumps Evolution

Empathy enables us to understand and share the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others. But empathy is inherently biased. We are hardwired to protect and nurture insiders and guard against outsiders or strangers. The reasons are subtler than they seem. It’s not that we don’t feel any empathy for strangers in distress. But because they’re strangers, we're wary of their motives. Our evolutionary instincts kick in and we pick survival over sensitivity. Under stress, we protect ourselves further still—reducing our ability to summon an emotional response to someone else’s pain.

More complex than sympathy or compassion, empathy involves three interconnected ideas: thinking, sharing and caring. Thinking is cognitive, in which you seek to understand someone else’s perspectives. Caring is affective, where you feel an emotional reaction to the pain of another. And sharing is physical and visceral - you literally feel what someone else feels.

Making the time to expand interpersonal circles at work deepens the relationships that invite empathic sentiments—we care more about the welfare of people we know than people we don’t. We may question their actions, but we don’t question their character. By creating the spaces to practice empathy at work—encouraging people to engage with their differences, or to work with people with divergent backgrounds—we can help people respond with empathy to the needs of others.

Empathy Can (and Should) Be Learned

Contrary to common opinion, empathy is not fixed. Not only can empathy be learned, but knowing that it can is the first step toward learning it. Science tells us that our mere willingness to see empathy as malleable promotes an empathic response, even in challenging situations like speaking to someone with opposing political views or hearing a racially-charged story from someone with different life experiences. An empathic mindset drives more empathic behavior.

Primatology research demonstrates that mammals—including humans—can foster empathy. In a study of bonobos, our closest genomic cousins, orphaned animals were slow to match the empathy of those reared from birth by their mothers. But over time, in a nurturing environment, they caught up. Scholar Jamil Zaki draws the parallels: “Even if we have evolved to care only in certain ways, we can transcend those limits. In any given moment, we can turn empathy up or down like the volume knob on a stereo: learning to listen to a difficult colleague or staying strong for a suffering relative.”

To fine tune the empathy on your team, be a role model. Start by asking questions. And listen with genuine curiosity. Research shows that a leader’s active empathic listening drives the engagement and dedication of their employees. But don't declare victory too soon. A recent study shows that senior leaders often overestimate the extent of their own empathy, and only 53% of CEOs feel responsible to influence workplace empathy overall. Finally, open yourself to disagreeing without seeking resolution—you don’t need to agree. Understanding another position while retaining your own point of view helps build the muscles of openness, respect and empathy.

Empathy Drives Innovation and Profitability

Empathy isn’t only about how people get along. Great designers have known for years that empathy is the foundation of the best designs. Think ergonomic handles for tools, walk-in bathtubs for the elderly, or the iPhone, whose design brought computing power to the public (technical skill optional). In fact, design thinking philosophy, now broadly applied to non-design businesses, starts with a deep understanding of the problems and real-life challenges of the people being served.

Companies that prioritize empathy have more profitable interactions with loyal customers. Research on the impact of empathic companies found that businesses are more productive when they act ethically, treat their staff well and communicate more openly with their customers. A Global Empathy Index emerging from this research demonstrated that the most empathic companies increased in value more than twice as much as the least, and they generated up to 50% more earnings.

When you intentionally cultivate empathy, you deepen the innovation skills of your teams, making space for imagination and intuition, creativity and problem solving. You drive better collaboration because teams are more open to each other’s ideas, and you supercharge innovation because empathy widens the possibilities. Again, empathic leaders set the tone: 61% of employees with empathic senior leaders report being innovative in their work; only 13% with less empathic senior leaders report the same.

A workplace without empathy undermines morale, paralyzes teams and promotes burnout, irreparably damaging your business. Meanwhile, empathy markedly increases efficiency, creativity, innovation and job satisfaction. There’s only one choice here. Prioritizing empathy at every level of your organization inoculates your business against the meanness and spitefulness seemingly lurking in every corner. How your employees treat each other, how well they work together, directly affects your bottom line. More empathy means happier people, more profits and, hopefully, far less spite.

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