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Empathy and Workplace Etiquette

Empathy and Workplace Etiquette - image of workplace culture plus definition of etiquette

Empathy is increasingly recognized as a crucial component of effective workplace dynamics. But is there such a thing as too much empathy? I was asked during a Q&A portion of a presentation I recently gave if it was possible to offer too much empathy in the workplace. This was the second time I’ve been asked this question, so it felt like a good topic for a blog post. 

The fear behind this question is, “Will it be inappropriate?” My belief is that it’s not possible to be too kind to someone. Does this mean we throw boundaries out the window? No, of course not. That’s not at all what I suggest. Recognizing your own capacity to extend empathy is key to maintaining a healthy balance. Ultimately, you know how much energy you have to give to someone else. You don’t want to extend beyond that, of course. Don’t drain yourself dry. Your empathy doesn't need to come at the expense of your well-being. The key to this is self-awareness. If you’re tired, if you’re irritated, that’s not the time to try to extend empathy toward someone. Make sure you fill yourself up first. It may be cliche, but it’s true, nonetheless: you can’t get water from a dry well. Pay attention to your body’s cues to know if you are over-extending. 

Boundaries and Workplace Etiquette

Empathy isn't always welcomed or appropriate in every situation. There are times someone puts up a boundary against receiving empathy. They may not be in a mental place to receive it. For example, Jane knew her client was going through a divorce, and extended the opportunity for her to talk about it if she wished. The woman did not wish to. She wanted, even needed, to stay focused on the purpose of the meeting in order to hold herself together. It’s true that Jane offered empathy. Even though her client didn’t take her up on the opportunity to express her feelings, it was still offered in a spirit of empathy and compassion. That matters. While Jane initially felt a bit hurt that the offer to discuss the situation had been rejected, and concerned that her intended empathy had not been felt, I explained that her action actually was empathetic.  Jane understood it in a new way. The client did feel the empathy - she just had a need not to go there, lest she fall apart. Falling apart in a business meeting can be human - yet most humans avoid it!

Cultivating a Culture of Empathy in Workplace Etiquette

There’s a stigma against showing strong emotions, in the office and honestly, in other places as well. It’s very vulnerable to cry. It’s uncomfortable to express anger, frustration. When feelings aren’t accepted, they can burble out, even when we don’t want them to. Obviously, emotional regulation is the goal. We all want to strive for that. And it’s okay. In vulnerability, there is both strength and humanity. Falling apart in a business setting is perfectly acceptable. 

Building a culture of empathy requires collective effort and intentionality. I advocate that we normalize emotions, rather than sweep them away. Feelings show up when they show up. We have this expectation in our culture about where it’s okay to display emotion, and which ones can be shown. I encourage people to be a part of shifting this culture toward allowing emotions to be felt.

Other Ways Empathy Can Play Out in Workplace Etiquette

Empathy also ties into other workplace situations. You may see a coworker deeply engrossed in a project. Empathy would lead you to let them continue in their state of flow, rather than interrupting them for a coffee break or a question about your project. 

In addition to respecting colleagues' focus and concentration, empathy can profoundly influence professional relationships and team dynamics. Linda worked with one man, Sam, who, after getting to know her and her quality of work, took her under his wing. Where she had previously had difficulty getting programs scheduled to run, now, with Sam introducing her as his right arm, she easily got things on the schedule. Sam saw and recognized a way to help a junior team member become more successful, leading to greater success for the whole team. She went from thwarted and frustrated to accomplished.  It was a win-win. 

Respectful Communication in Workplace Etiquette

In many workplaces, there are times when coworkers need to rely on one another. It could be cooperating on a project, covering a shift, or a myriad of other things. The one common feature they require is good communication. Respectful communication takes into account a number of factors, from tone of voice, to body language, to acknowledging personal or cultural differences. It clarifies, rather than making an assumption. “Is that right?” If you misunderstood, there is a calm, easy way to course correct. If you understood the meaning, you can continue. Additionally, if someone you’re working with asks you “is this right?” you have the opportunity to fine tune their understanding without quashing them. “That’s not quite it.” Then you can explain further and move the project along. That bit of empathy helps.

Compassionate Leadership and Workplace Etiquette

Most of an employee’s time at work is likely to be focused on  - well, work. But occasionally, the rest of their life spills over in small or large ways. I know a lawyer who was diligent, hardworking, and well on her way to becoming a partner in the firm. But at one point, she began having a health problem, and was very concerned that she was losing her vision. She continued working to her best ability, until one day, she began crying. The fear of becoming blind overwhelmed her, and her superior at the office took her to his office, and showed her empathy. She was given time to properly investigate and take care of her health issue, which, I’m happy to say, was able to be treated and she regained her vision. And in case you were wondering, she did make partner.

As you can see, empathy works to help improve workplace etiquette and smooth the day to day functioning for all employees. With it, people can feel heard, understood, and accomplish their goals.

If you’re interested in learning more, explore our course Listen Your Way to Deeper Connections. Go deeper into ways empathy impacts your personal and professional life.

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