Mending Workplace Relationships by Communicating Empathy
Empathy: Expressing understanding, a sense of concern or interest in another person’s situation without needing to have the same feelings they may be experiencing.
- Have you complained about your supervisor or co-workers to others without sharing the feedback first with that person?
- Do you tend to blame others for things that go wrong without looking at what you can do to change the situation?
- Do you take feedback or constructive criticism personally?
Reflecting on Changes in Workplace Relationships
The majority of a day is spent in a myriad of work exchanges, from face-to-face, distant, global and domestic, and with English and non-English speakers. We may use different technologies from Zoom to Skype, and other online methods of communication. There are always individuals with different personalities, communication styles, priorities, expectations, and deadlines coming together. Even on teams, where interdependence is expected, there may be disruptive relationships because of communication breakdowns, getting behind in task completion, and so forth. All of these behaviors may impact productivity, the ability to advocate for yourself, and harmony with colleagues. When these incidents occur more than once, some individuals sense they are being disregarded and disrespected and stop communicating. Situations where relationships go awry present an opportunity to apply emotional intelligence (EI); empathy is a form of EI. However, there may be barriers.
Potential Barriers to Resolving Workplace Issues
As you look to understand why a relationship with co-workers have fallen apart, consider the following questions:
- Are you holding assumptions about your colleagues that are entirely negative?
- Is there built-up resentment that leads you to complain about other co-workers?
- Do you hold negative biases about your colleague because of his sexual orientation, age, or disability?
- Do you find yourself withholding information to make someone else look bad?
Expectations about Workplace Relationships
The task of adulthood is to love and to work is a quote often attributed to Sigmund Freud, a reminder that work plays a central role in one’s personal and professional identity. The workplace is often compared to family systems, where relationships can flourish, become frayed or even rupture. If a colleague is perceived as a “favorite child”, one who gets assignments that put her in the spotlight, do you question why this occurs and how Maureen is managing with all this attention. Resentment may build, and you may begin to ignore her even though you consider her a great performer. Another example is having a co-worker who has permission to leave an hour earlier for school pick-up. Though intellectually, you may say, “I understand”, completing that person’s tasks may begin to feel like a burden. And if there are no thanks expressed, chances are resentment will increase. In both examples, co-workers avoided speaking up, asking for clarification or stating the following:
Communicating Empathy at Work
You: Hey Maureen, what’s the deal with all of these super-star assignments? You don’t even have time for lunch anymore.
Maureen: These special assignments are draining me. I know some people on the team think I am asking for these plum tasks but believe me, my performance makes Harry look good. His superiors don’t know I am preparing the research reports.
You: That’s a bummer Maureen. Everyone here sees you as the super-star. Let me get you some coffee and a snack; you need to keep up your energy.
You: Hi Cynthia, how are things going with the after-school pick-ups? It really makes for a long day I imagine. I notice you come in earlier than most of the team.
Cynthia: Thanks for asking and for picking up some of my work. I feel like I fall behind everyday and all I can do when I am here is stick in my office to get more done. Sorry if it seems I am ignoring you.
You: Yes, I guess it felt like you were ignoring me but I totally understand. Let me know if you need me to help out with anything.
You: Sam, I was wondering when you are turning in your part of the report. It’s due at 5 today and I still have to assemble all of the sections including yours.
Sam: I’m not having a good day. The program keeps freezing and delaying my analysis. Maybe I should just ask for someone else to help out.
You: Of course, I was just concerned about getting in a good product. You know a lot is riding on our report. Glad to help out!
Empathy goes a long way. It is a human emotion of care, concern, and consideration. The examples provided are very common and involve pragmatic solutions. Asking questions for clarification and communicating empathy are within our power.
Please share with us how you have managed workplace relationships that almost fell apart. What practices did you use to mend? How did you communicate empathy?