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Updated: December 9, 2019 Outside the Box

Empathy improves your business

A picture of Bonnie J. Walker Image | Courtesy of Bonnie J. Walker Bonnie J. Walker
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Fifteen years ago the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) narrative in supporting individuals, initiatives and organizations focused on teaching tolerance.

Teaching tolerance is a miss, given the word tolerance is steeped in privilege. In this context, no one should simply be tolerated, as though their existence a bother. From tolerance, the focus moved to acceptance. This word is also flawed, as it infers one needs to be validated through the acceptance of another, and pointedly from folks in dominant societal seats of power.

Today, DEI work is focusing in on empathy. Empathy puts everyone on the same level, and it is grounded in action, thoughtfulness, and connectivity. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, being thoughtful about what someone else is going through; unlike sympathy, which can feel patronizing and come across as a removed expression of feeling sorry. Empathy connects us to each other’s experiences in a way tolerance, acceptance, and sympathy cannot. Simon Baron-Cohen, British psychologist and professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, said, “Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble.” 

A lack of empathy at the company-wide level will lead to a breakdown in relationships and the organization. When people don’t feel cared for, heard, understood, or appreciated, they stop giving their best efforts. I reached out to four managers to find out what a lack of empathy looks like in an organization:

1. After years of passing over my best customer service representative for promotion because of financial constraints, I saw this individual staring with a deadpan expression as they interrupt a distressed customer in mid-sentence, frustrated by the customer’s response to her merchandise not ringing up at the sale price, saying to the customer, “I guess today isn’t your lucky day, or maybe pink isn’t your color.”

2. My colleague calling me at home the day after I went out on bereavement leave after my dad passed, to say all in one sentence, “I’m sorry for your loss; hey, could you still get me those stats for the presentation tomorrow? I know you’re going to be out for a few days.”

3. My vice president asking me to conference-in on a call when I was home caring for my sick child.

4. A Muslim colleague explained in a staff meeting how the presidential administration’s agenda, including the travel bans, affected him daily. Another colleague said, “You just have to learn how to put that stuff on a shelf when you come to work.”

When employees feel understood, they’re more receptive to others’ concerns. This lends to team cohesion and collaboration. They’re more apt to take risks, believing they’ll be supported. According to Businessolver’s 2017 Workplace Empathy Monitor report, empathy has a direct impact on employee productivity, loyalty, and engagement. Here are some particularly striking data points from the report:

  • 77% of workers would be willing to work more hours for a more empathetic workplace.
  • 92% of human resources professionals note a compassionate workplace is a major factor for employee retention.
  • 80% of Millennials note they would leave their current job if their office became less empathetic. 

How you can practice empathy:

1. Be thoughtful about how you listen and adjust for improvement.

2. Ask questions reflecting support.

3. Be mindful: Visualize walking in your coworkers’ shoes.

4. Avoid making assumptions.

5. Prioritize problems: Choose your battles; employees have a lot to do.

6. Be transparent with your staff.

7. Remember people have feelings not always separated from business.

8. Be patient with yourself and others in improving empathetic practices.

Bonnie J. Walker is the interim director of equity and inclusion at Worcester Academy, plying this arena in education in Mass. for 15 years. Contact her at

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