Students in Courtney Putnam’s integrated learning course that links English 101 and College 101 participated in small group “empathy projects,” which involved both primary and secondary research at Cascadia. Here, students in the “Empathy in Workplace Settings” group present and interpret their research findings.
By Cascadia students Ruslan Bagdasaryan, Kristian Bottger, Cameron Nagel, & Sean Zhao
Did you ever notice your coworkers avoiding contact? Perhaps they even fought? This poor show of empathy between workers may not only harm the employees, but the entire company’s workflow overall.
DEFINING EMPATHY IN WORKPLACE TERMS
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Though it may not seem it, there are several studies showing how empathy within a work environment between co-workers and those in leadership positions can lead to an increase in employee happiness and productivity (Whiteside).
According to a study called “The Benefits of Emotional Intelligence and Empathy to Entrepreneurship” by Ronald Humphry, entrepreneurs that scored high “on emotional intelligence/ competencies” tests would be “more emotionally resilient when facing obstacles, be more successful at handling intense emotions when working with family members, they will work more effectively with their employees, customers and other stakeholders and they will be rated higher on leadership by their employees… will be more successful at motivating and leading their employees, and helping their employees cope with workplace stressors” (Humphry).
We decided to see if this study was true by asking individuals at Cascadia to share their stories about empathy or lack thereof and if it had helped them overcome any problems. We hypothesized that if we asked our fellow Cascadians about their experiences in the workplace we would be able to deduce that empathy in the workplace can lead to better interpersonal connections between employees as well as increase productivity.
We had a total of 19 people between the ages of 25 to 74 take our survey all of whom work or study at Cascadia College. We asked these people via online survey to answer 6 questions pertaining to empathy with their jobs and how it impacts them and those they interact with. The questions go as followed:
- Please describe a conflict that you had at work? And how was it resolved?
- What role did empathy play in the resolution of your conflict?
- Please describe the role of empathy in your workplace? This could include interaction with colleagues, management, students, etc.
- How does empathy affect your relationship with your colleagues?
- Do you feel that empathy is important in a workplace setting for the overall success of an organization? Please explain why or why not.
- What does empathy mean to you? And how can it affect you in your workplace?
There were many stories that featured conflicts, grudges, and resolutions, and though not everyone was able to see eye to eye, everyone who took the survey answered that empathy was in some way an important factor for maintaining a better workplace environment. One of the most interesting topics to come out of the survey was that there were several individuals who debated empathy’s meaning and that even though empathy is important, it can also go too far and become overbearing. To directly quote an answer by one participant, “It helps people to feel respected and understood. It can also be a hindrance. Sometimes fairness requires impartiality and following procedure and this requires steeling oneself to make hard decisions. It’s hard for me to make these kinds of decisions when I feel strongly the hurt or disappointment of others. Conversely, feeling the joy of others can also lead to unfair decisions. Finally, empathy seems useless when one has to decide (fairly) between two people.” Several other participants also made similar remarks about empathy and fairness. Based on these remarks we’ve concluded that empathy is an important tool but not a silver bullet that’s capable of resolving all workplace problems.
INTERPRETATION & NEXT STEPS
We compared our results to those of the previously mentioned study and found interesting correlations. In regards to emotional workings of family members, we were unable to find any participants comparing family or family values with empathy. In our study, we found that there were many similarities between our survey and the study’s results of better effectiveness, motivation, leadership, and stress coping abilities for those who empathize with others in the workplace. Where our survey differs from the study is that several of our participants had stated that though empathy was important, fairness between employees and customers was more imperative than empathy. To test our results we recommend implementing empathy workshops to see if there’s a measurable change in employee productivity. Using these results, this information could be useful information for many companies and places of business. Particularly, these findings can be given to human resources departments to help understand empathy and fairness in the workplace.
Cohen, Taya R; Panter, At; Turan, Nazly; Morse, Lily; Kim, Yeonjeong. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Nov 2014, Vol.107(5), p.943
Humphrey, Ronald H. “The Benefits of Emotional Intelligence and Empathy to Entrepreneurship” A New Business Model: The Emotional Dimension of Organizations. Entrepreneurship Research Journal, 3.3 (2013): 287-294.
Whiteside, David, and Laurie Barclay. “The Face of Fairness: Self-Awareness as a Means to Promote Fairness among Managers with Low Empathy.” Journal of Business Ethics 137.4 (2016): 721-30. Print.