Academic Insight: The Importance Of Empathy And Grace In The Workplace

Written by: Shontarius D. Aikens

Throughout my career, I often participate in panels and discussions where I share my personal experiences of being an African-American male in today’s society. At the end of each talk, I invite attendees to ask me questions. During the Q&A period, I am fully aware that there is an underlying fear in the room that the attendees experience. It is a fear of coming across as insensitive when asking me a question or when making a comment in response to my presentation. To mitigate this, I publicly acknowledge to the attendees that I am fully aware that this fear could exist among them, and I publicly acknowledge that I am extending empathy and grace to everyone in the room. What typically transpires is a few softball questions at first then ultimately leading to more in depth questions and deep conversations toward the end. Ultimately, it turns out to be a very positive experience for both myself and the attendees.

As I’ve done these presentations over the years, what I realized is that being proactive in extending empathy and grace requires an intentional and conscious effort. While as fearful as it may be for me to share deeply personal things in my life with strangers,
I also recognized that it might be as equally fearful for someone to genuinely ask me a question or to make a comment at the risk of public embarrassment. Since all of us are human and will make mistakes, whether consciously or unconsciously, I truly believe that everyone needs and should be extended grace from time to time.

Let’s shift to the modern workplace. The more time that individuals spend working together, the more likelihood there is for conflicts and misunderstandings. In the field of Organizational Behavior, these misunderstandings can be in the form of perceptual distortions (“inaccuracies that cloud our perceptions of different people, situations, and events”) and fundamental attribution error (“attributing the bad behaviors of others more to their internal personal characteristics rather than to external situational factors”). And as managers, these misunderstandings can hinder our ability to make the best possible decisions or judgments concerning employees and their performance. And this is why I think that empathy and grace are needed more so now in the workplace than ever before. Extending empathy and grace in potentially difficult situations can result in long-term positive benefits, and I’d like to share two specific examples.

Example #1: Improving Manager-Employee Relationships And Employee Work Performance

Earlier in my career, I worked with a colleague who had a track record of high-quality work and productivity. But then, there came a time when we noticed that this person’s work productivity and quality began to decline. Despite murmurings for this person to be reprimanded, the manager practiced empathy and grace toward my colleague in the form of a statement and questions: “Your work is normally at this high level, but it has dropped off significantly. Is everything ok? Is there something you are missing or that you need?” Unbeknown to us at the time was that my colleague was going through a very difficult time at home that was having an adverse effect on the person’s ability to focus at work. Eventually, my colleague’s work performance returned to form and eventually improved to the point of exceeding their previous high standard of work. It also resulted in a much stronger relationship between my colleague and the supervisor, so much so that when my colleague was presented with an offer to leave for a better job opportunity, my colleague chose to remain at the organization. And the reason for staying put? My colleague valued the manager and the organization more than the new job opportunity and was greatly appreciative of the treatment (empathy and grace) that was extended during that difficult time period. Extending empathy and grace can be difficult in the workplace in certain situations. But when given the opportunity, doing so can result in better manager- employee relationships and employee performance according to a study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership.

Example #2: Turning Contencious Situations Into Educational Moments

There was a time when I was interacting in a social setting with some friends and acquaintances. During this setting, I noticed that a person was casually using a term that some might consider to be insensitive or offensive. Given my previous experience with the book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” I decided to practice Habit #5 (Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood). I found an opportunity to talk with this person in a private 1 on 1 conversation, and what I learned was that the person truly didn’t realize that the term they were using could be considered insensitive or offensive. They were genuinely remorseful. This person thanked me for having a private conversation with them, and then later on, this person publicly apologized to the entire group. If I would have made the choice to publicly berate this person, the situation could have easily turned into a contentious moment. Rather, it turned into an educational moment for that person. In this situation, the person was demonstrating unconscious incompetence (“when one doesn’t know that they don’t know”). By extending empathy and grace, this person was now at a point of conscious incompetence (“when one knows that they don’t’ know”), which provided an opportunity for them to learn and grow from that experience. In situations like this, empathy and grace provides an opportunity for a practice that is termed as Calling Someone Out, While Also Calling Them In, which can have a long-term positive effect for the individual and for the company.

I hope these examples will inspire you to think of ways and situations where you can extend empathy and grace to your colleagues in your organizations.

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