How to Improve Employee Engagement with an Empathy Infusion

Guest Contributorby David Zinger | Posted | Engagement

How to Improve Employee Engagement with an Empathy Infusion

We can't talk about empathy without defining it first:

Empathy is about standing in someone else's shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place. ~ Daniel H Pink

When managers and coworkers have little empathy for each other, we end up with situations like these:

Alice, a senior account executive, feels her work is lacking in both meaning and impact. Yet every time she brings it up her director, Rick, dismisses her concern and Alice feels a little more disengaged.

Sanjit believes he is going nowhere with his job in HR and he believes neither his boss nor co-workers understand. He wants out of the organization but due to the economy he keeps returning to work day after day and doing the minimum possible.

So what's an infusion of empathy? The medical definition of infusion is: the continuous slow introduction of a solution especially into a vein. When we are trying to tap into the vein of engagement at work I suggest the solution is an infusion of empathy.

Empathy: Not a soft skill

Now that we've got our definitions straight, let's abandon the dismissive label of empathy as a soft skill. I have always believed that categorizing human interaction as a soft skill is a failure to see how hard or difficult it really is, and so to is brushing off empathy as fluffy and inconsequential.

Empathy is not "touchy feely." It is not mechanically saying, "I understand" or "I know how you feel." Empathy is moving beyond our own view and experience of work to see work and our organization from another person's perspective. It takes courage to understand someone we don't agree with. It takes gumption to find authentic words that communicate what we believe another person is experiencing.

Leaders and managers become more engaging when they fully understand the people they lead and manage because those employees know they are valued, and their voices are heard. Employees are also confident that leaders or managers can frame work in ways that make sense for them.

We want employees to understand why engagement is so important for the organization. But as Stephen Covey said years ago, we need to "seek first to understand before seeking to be understood." I like his statement even if I believe it is a tad anemic. I believe we must seek first to understand, and demonstrate that understanding, before seeking to be understood. A good first step is to understand, but you take one giant step when you demonstrate that understanding through empathic words and actions.

The formula for developing empathy

For over twenty years I taught counselling psychology at the University of Manitoba. Empathy was the foundation of my teaching. I believed when we teach students to sharpen their empathy and communication of empathy it helps clients resolve whatever brought them to counselling. I also believe managers and leaders who demonstrate empathy foster engagement and diminish the devastation of disengagement.

I would take 90 hours to teach my students the fundamentals of empathy when I taught counselling psychology at the University of Manitoba. We don't have 90 hours in this post, so I'll give you a simple formula to enhance your empathy. This is empathic scaffolding; don't delude yourself thinking this makes you instantly empathic.

It is a clear and logical equation to attune and enliven your ability and skills in understanding:


We need to hear what our employees are saying (content), hear how they are saying it (emotion), and know why they are saying it (intention). Our skill in empathy is based on our ability to listen and hear this combined with our ability to respond with statements and actions of understanding. Our employees, like Alice and Sanjit, hunger to be understood at work.

Facing the empathy challenge

Be cautious because understanding does not equal agreement. It also doesn't magically make things all better. Although the equation is simple, the practice is challenging. Many of us have impoverished emotional vocabularies and many of us fail to hear the intentions embedded in other people's statements and actions.

Here are 4 empathic nudges:

  1. As you listen to others try to identify the content, emotion, and intention of what they are saying.
  2. Tentatively work at communicating your understanding, and be open and willing to be corrected by the other person.
  3. If you have a disengaged employee, rather than trying to change them or be angry with them, take twenty minutes to listen and understand their work and the organization from their perspective.
  4. Enrich your life outside of work by going home tonight and do your best to fully understand your spouse, parent, or teenager.

With an infusion of empathy - to paraphrase poet Robert Browning - you can engage along with me and discover the best that is yet to be.

Creating the Culture Employees Want

CIPD survey says... Employees are looking for a \'family-feel\' culture

Watch Now
Cover of the book
Cover of the book

Creating the Culture Employees Want

CIPD survey says... Employees are looking for a \'family-feel\' culture

Watch Now

Related Articles

Close [x]

Get our Saba Blog Digest email delivered right to your inbox.

Join over 100,000 of your HR peers: