Even before the disruptive and damaging events of 2020 and early 2021—a global pandemic, a racial reckoning, economic uncertainty, and the most divisive political climate in living memory—our society has had a larger, more encompassing problem.
We have an empathy deficit.
For a lot of reasons we can point to—stark political divisions, the isolation made easy by technology, the deterioration of civility—we have given up on understanding our fellow humans. We’ve collectively lost the ability to open our minds to the perspectives and experiences of others. Instead, we are filling the air with tension, afraid to speak up for fear of saying the wrong thing, making a mistake, or offending someone.
But in order for our world to recover from the past year’s damage—economic, mental, and emotional—we must find ways to close the empathy gap in our relationships, in our communities, and importantly, in our workplaces.
First, it’s important to understand what empathy is and isn’t. It’s not sympathy, which is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. While it doesn’t demand that we all agree, empathy does enable us to perceive and consider someone else’s point of view.
So how did we arrive at this empathy gap? Because we have become increasingly tribal as a society, and we live in a world of separate identities. We’ve set up permanent rivalries. If it’s not red vs blue, it’s men vs women. Majority vs. minority. Immigrant vs native. Blue collar vs white collar. Millennial vs baby boomer.
Even more sinister, underlying these divides are messages like: “If you aren’t with me, you’re against me.” “I’m right, so that makes you wrong.” “You’re not like me, so I don’t like you.”
Closing the gap requires more than calls for unity, and it’s not as simple as a training module at school or work.
Although studies show the environment in which children are raised can impact whether empathy is fostered or suppressed, it isn’t necessarily something that can be taught or learned in a formal way. The capacity for empathy seems to be innate, and is evident even in other species. It’s a trait that is already within us—a muscle we all have that we need to exercise.
An important place to start is in the workplace. Here, the empathy deficit shows up every day, pushing wedges between coworkers and stifling productivity and innovation.
It’s important to tackle the empathy gap at work for three reasons: One, many of us, particularly in America, spend more waking hours at our jobs than anywhere else, so what happens at work naturally flows outward—to families, communities, and the world. Two, work is the one place where you can’t self-select the people you interact with every day, so civility and harmony are requisites. And three, empathy will be critical to economic and business recovery, because empathetic workplace cultures retain the best people and enjoy higher productivity. When we build empathy muscles in the workplace, we really can impact the world beyond.
Business leaders can foster empathy in their workplaces in several ways:
- Announce it. Business leaders need to make a clear, unequivocal statement to employees about the importance of practicing empathy right now. And this statement must be echoed by the entire C-suite and filtered down through every people manager. If you abide by a set of explicit guiding principles, include empathy in them.
- Reward it. The best way to elicit certain behaviors in the workplace is to reward it when you see it. Give your people managers the tools to recognize and reward people who display empathy. Similarly, publicly acknowledge those whose ideas advance an inclusive workplace.
- Be creative. Activities that create new communities and bonding opportunities across the organization can pay major dividends. At work—as elsewhere—people tend to spend free time with like-minded friends, but you can encourage them to connect with others outside the circle as a way to develop empathy. You could, for example, pay for employees to take a colleague they don’t know out to lunch (or share virtual takeout). Involve employees in coming up with other ideas like this—the possibilities are limitless.
Successfully building up our collective empathy muscle means businesses aren’t as reliant on regulation and legislation to create equitable playing fields within our companies. Because the truth is, nearly all discrimination—racism, sexism, ageism, etc.—stems from a lack of empathy. When we prioritize empathy in the workplace, we can make a social impact that will be felt not only in workplaces, but in our homes, communities, and countries.
Finally, each of us as individuals have a social responsibility to give our own empathy muscles an overdue workout. It takes every single one of us to do our part to rebuild trust in one another. There is no system that can close the gap.
To do this, we must be better stewards of our own mental health, learning techniques to navigate differences and overcome biases. We need to understand the concept of active listening and brave difficult conversations that lead to understanding. And we need to utilize trusted, credible resources to improve our own mental health literacy and help those around us.
This is how we heal our society and reshape it to be one where every individual is valued and has the resources and relationships to weather the storms that will surely come again.
Marjorie Morrison, LMFT, LPC, is the CEO and co-founder of Psych Hub, the world’s largest online platform for mental health education. Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is the president and chief executive officer of SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management.