Empathy Is More Than a Buzzword

Workplace empathy is getting trendy.

What I mean is: building empathy is a nonnegotiable component of inclusion. But empathy is one of those words — like authenticity and vulnerability — that gets tossed around in leadership and workplace conversations.

When concepts like empathy become “trendy,” their meaning and associated action can be lost. So when we talk about inclusive empathy, what do we actually mean? What are you supposed to do?

In chapter three of Inclusion on Purpose, I spend time unpacking the two different types of empathy (yes, there are two!):

1. Affective empathy (how easily you can feel another person’s emotions).

2. Cognitive empathy (you can understand and validate experiences and perspectives that may not be like yours).

The empathy you want to cultivate as an inclusive leader is cognitive empathy. Why? Because cognitive empathy demands that we don’t automatically assume that others experience the workplace in the same way we do.

For example, let’s say an Asian woman experiences biased behavior in the form of a comment about her accent in a western workplace. Her white, male American colleague may not be able to personally relate, but he can understand that her experience is different from his and validate that it’s painful for her. That’s cognitive empathy in action. This colleague understands that there is nuance to how his Asian peer experiences the workplace, based on her identities as a woman of color.

I can’t express how much it means for women of color to experience this level of empathy from our white managers and peers.

Demonstrating cognitive empathy at the right moment can significantly change the course of an underestimated person’s career. As newer research shows, empathy is not an inborn trait. It can–and should–be cultivated.

Here are some ways how:

How to enhance your cognitive empathy

Walk in a fictional character’s shoes. I recommend consuming media — fiction, movies, TV shows — by authors from underrepresented and underestimated communities. When we put ourselves in a fictional person’s shoes who has an experience entirely different than our own, research shows it can help us develop empathy.

Some of my recent favorite fiction books include, Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata and Ginny Tapley Takemori (translator), Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Border Less, by Namrata Poddar (which released on the same day as my book!)

Audit your social network. I also recommend auditing your social and professional network with curiosity. Do the people closest to you share the same identities as you; race, gender, education, socioeconomic status etc? If yes, how can you meaningfully diversify and expand your network? It could be as simple as asking a coworker from a different background to have lunch with you this week.

Cultivate awareness at work. Finally, there are small but mighty everyday actions you can take at work. Take time and care to pronounce names correctly, and spell them with the appropriate grammar markings (like vowel accents). Take note of your employees’ pronouns and lead by sharing your own.

These seemingly small details have a powerful compound effect, and meaningfully impact how valued, welcome and safe other people feel in your workplace and your presence.

How have you cultivated your cognitive empathy? Do you have a favorite work of fiction by someone with a different background, one that really changed your perspective? What’s a small but mighty action your coworkers take that makes you feel welcome?

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