Entrenching empathy in the workplace

Two recent expert workshops looked at why empathy is crucial in the modern workplace and techniques for introducing and entrenching empathy at work

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Empathy has emerged as a key theme of 2020. It’s particularly relevant to workplaces who are looking at ways of entrenching empathy going forward.

Never ending virtual meetings during lockdown took us all into each other’s homes in a new way. And employers had to be more understanding of their employees’ childcare needs. While we all felt for colleagues, friends and neighbours affected by the pandemic. More and more firms are looking at entrenching empathy at work.

Our sister site workingmums.co.uk hosted two employer workshops on how empathy can be used to create a more engaged, productive workforce in November. The sessions were led by Oliver Hansard and Joss Mathieson from Catalyst Thinking Partners.

Empathy is a key skill

Opening the first workshop, Hansard said that, in a world where we are in control of so little that is going on, empathy is a key skill. It is no use having technical ability without having the skills to unlock people’s potential, he stated. He argued that empathy is generative rather than passive, meaning that it guides people’s actions.

Mathieson said Covid has shown the importance of engagement and regular communication. He added that empathy is crucial for dealing with a culture of change. If change is handled badly and with a lack of empathy, it can knock people sideways for months, he said. People’s attitude to change is deeply personal, he added, so we need to understand what it means to individuals to ensure people are able to deal with it effectively.

Hansard and Mathieson asked what people understood by the term empathy. Empathy is not only about understanding another person’s perspective. It also guides what actions should be taken and what support might be required. 


VUCA emerged as a key acronym. Hansard and Mathieson explained that the environment is currently volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – VUCA. But they emphasised that the response ought to be VUCA leadership – valiant, understanding, compassionate and authentic

  • Valiance is about not being afraid to show that you don’t know everything, to ask what others think and to do the right thing;
  • Understanding is about understanding how others feel;
  • Compassion is about being consistently thoughtful, even in challenging circumstances;
  • Authenticity is about being genuine and honest and not being afraid to show vulnerability, for instance, to talk about what it is really like living through this pandemic.

Hansard and Mathieson pointed out that there is often a discrepancy between how empathetic CEOs think they and their company are versus what employees perceive. A recent workplace empathy survey from Businesssolver showed, 

  • 68% of CEOs think their companies are empathetic, compared to 48% of employees.
  • 76% of employees think empathy leads to greater productivity compared to 52% of CEOs
  • 70% of employees think greater empathy results in lower staff turnover, compared to just 40% of CEOs.  

Empathy manifesto

In their ‘Empathy Manifesto’, Hansard and Mathieson have called for a cultural shift around empathy. They referred to how Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, had put empathy at the core of innovation to understand the different needs of customers and appreciate different perspectives. Microsoft has shifted from a ‘know it all’ culture to ‘learn it all’ as a result.

As a framework, Hansard and Mathieson outlined their Empathy Compass. It has empathy at the centre, surrounded by self, team, organisation and customer. They said empathy for yourself is your “North Star”. By understanding how you are feeling, you can be more empathetic to others and more resilient. They emphasised the importance of finding time for yourself amid family and work demands.  

In a team setting, empathy involves listening to others and being prepared to act on what they say, being honest rather than hiding bad news and taking the group with you. It can involve ensuring people take time out regularly to care for others in the team, testing things out and listening to feedback. 

Organisational empathy

When it comes to customers, empathy is about listening to their needs and adjusting products or services accordingly, whether they are internal or external clients. It is an opportunity to show you care and value customers and it drives loyalty. 

There are two dimensions to organisational empathy. Top down empathy is demonstrated by senior managers. Bottom up empathy is built from the sum of other acts of empathy – teams, customers and self. 

Hansard and Mathieson discussed how to attract and hire empathetic candidates. They said it is about having the right behavioural frameworks and asking candidates at interview about what they think empathy is. Employers ought to ask for examples of how they have demonstrated this. They can be asked about their personal values and the employer can assess the cultural fit against their organisational values.


Participants then discussed examples of empathetic leadership in their own organisations. Initiatives included weekly videos from CEOs about the need for everyone to take care of themselves; leaders who are mental health first aiders; role models and influencers who generate empathy; leader drop-in sessions; leaders who give people permission to take time out; a focus on domestic abuse; employee audits that ensure employers know about the different problems affecting different groups; treating employees like consumers; and a focus on adaptability to change and on how an empathetic culture supports this.

Mathieson said it is important to be aware that different cultural contexts need to be taken into account. For example a different empathetic approach may be needed for different stages of the pandemic. Hansard said listening needs to become an organisational habit as does demonstrating that what is being said is being taken on board. Mathieson said employers need to listen more than they talk.

Listening hard

In the second workshop, participants explored empathetic listening or what one participant called “listening hard”. They focused on the reciprocal empathetic relationship between employer and employee. That means creating an environment of trust where employees feel they can be open and honest and that what they say will be acted upon. There was also a discussion on how an empathetic culture could boost understanding of customer needs and help deliver better services. Better listening can sometimes be enough to push things forward in itself if people feel they are being heard. 

Hansard said there are three types of empathy. 

Cognitive empathy or empathy by thought – the ability to see another’s perspective.

Emotional empathy – the ability to feel another’s emotions

Generative empathy – which generates empathy in others and leads to action, if not by the listener then by others. 

Receiving and witnessing empathy has a profound impact and generates empathy for others.

ACORN method

They outlined their ACORN method of generative empathy which is based on:

Attention – listening with full attention and not imposing your own perspective; 

Curiosity – exploring what the other person is thinking or feeling and checking that you have heard and understood correctly;

Observation – noticing all signals, including body language and emotions

Reflection – being a mirror and testing what people are saying, for instance, stating: ‘I think what you are saying is…’ This can be helpful even if you get it wrong as it might make the person think about the issue in a different way if done well; and

Next steps – working together to identify action for you and for them.


Participants then took part in an empathy breakout session to try the ACORN method for themselves. They worked in trios where one person shared a challenge or problem, one person listened to another and another observed. Reflecting afterwards, some participants described the difficulty of letting go of the feeling that they needed to find a solution to people’s problems rather than just reflect them back and find a supportive way forward. Mathieson said intentional listening has to be practised regularly and developed “as a muscle”. This is particularly important for building resilient organisations, promoting inclusion and helping people to navigate agility and change. 

Hansard and Mathieson have developed a six-month empathy training programme for leaders which shows significant boosts in leaders’ ability to listen and teams’ ability to behave empathetically as well as increased trust. The leaders who have taken part say it is transformative, helping teams feel more connected and able to be more honest and open.

If you would like to know more about the Empathy Manifesto and the work Hansard and Mathieson do, please contact them on [email protected]/ www.hansardcoaching.com and [email protected]/www.changeoasis.com.


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