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Why Empathy on Teams is So Essential During These Uncertain Times

Learn how empathy can help boost your team's morale.
Photo: Shutterstock

How many teams are you a part of right now? I’m talking about the work team, the home team, the community team, the volunteer team, the sports team…the list goes on. It’s probably safe to stay, as someone in the wellness industry, that you are a pivotal part of a lot of teams. So, let me ask you:

How many of them are you excited about?

How many of them drag you down?

What’s the difference between the ones that lift you up and the ones that drag you down? In my experience, the difference is empathy.

What is empathy? Empathy is the ability to understand the perspectives, emotions, and behaviors of others. Empathy is neither endorsement nor agreement. It is, at its core, understanding.

This sounds so simple and yet can be so challenging to practice.

It’s important that we clear up this misconception that empathy is an innate trait, one that cannot be learned. The majority of the population has the capacity for empathy, and empathy is a skill that can be learned, if one is willing to practice.

There have been numerous studies on the effects of empathy on leadership and one’s team over the years, all of which suggest that empathy builds better teams. Catalyst recently published a study called The Power of Empathy in Time of Crisis and Beyond, which revealed when empathy is demonstrated by leaders, levels of innovation, engagement, and creativity increased while levels of burnout and the intention to leave a team decreased.

Why is this?

In my experience working on and with teams for the past two decades, I have found that we often start out with the best of intentions to understand our teammates, yet we are hijacked when the pressure on the team starts to increase. As workloads increase, employee challenges rise, clients demand more, and we’re asked to do more with less, our brain goes into survival mode, activating our flight-or-fight response. This limits our ability to demonstrate empathy.

And let’s not sugar coat it, we all have been in survival mode throughout the last year and a half, tackling unknowns and new challenges the pandemic has brought on. The wellness industry was greatly impacted, and leaders have had to make some tough decisions.

In his book Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek talked about the “me” vs “we” chemical loop in our brain. In most of today’s teams, we are so focused on deadlines and productivity that our brains produce an abundance of the “me” chemicals. We are literally flooding our systems with dopamine and endorphins—the selfish chemicals that drive competition and achievement—and the dangerous cycle is limiting our ability to demonstrate and practice empathy.

Here is the paradox: Empathy increases productivity and engagement, yet when we focus only on productivity, we limit our ability to demonstrate empathy. It is a vicious cycle, and one that takes courage to break.

How do we bring empathy back into our teams?

Whether you run a 50-person team at a luxury spa, or a two-person team at a yoga studio, it starts by recognizing that empathy is missing and acknowledging that it’s important for the survival of the team. Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Bringing empathy back into a team starts with a new mindset.

  • “Our differences make us stronger.”
  • “Everyone on this team is whole and capable.No one needs fixing.”
  • “My truth may not be everyone’s truth”
  • “Empathy can be learned if I commit to the practice.”

Once we have reoriented our mindset, we can begin to learn, practice, and demonstrate empathy skills.

I have found that we cannot do with others, that which we cannot do with ourselves first. So, the practice of empathy first starts inside us.

Noticing and catching those moments when we judge ourselves harshly is the first step to being able to practice empathy. Where you judge yourself most is likely to be the very same place you judge others harshly. Empathy is not judgement, rather acceptance of what is: The joy and the hurt, the excitement and the frustration, the need for flexibility or structure. No judgement, acceptance.

Reminding ourselves that we are all in this beautiful and often challenging life together is essential to being able to practice empathy in a team. We often don’t know the inner battles our practitioners and staff are facing, nor are we privy to the inner worlds of our clients, so reminding each other to look beyond what is right in front of us and meeting each other with grace and humility is paramount.

When recognizing we feel threatened in a team setting—maybe it’s a promotion or large customer we’ve been competing for—it’s important that we remember it is not a matter of life or death and that we always have the ability to choose our response. If we can recognize this “threat” for what it is—a bruise to our ego—we can choose in those moments to get curious and explore others’ perspectives, experiences, and emotions rather than shut them down or try to fix them.

Listening with the intention of being influenced is helpful in slowing down our need to respond quickly and allows us to take in and process the information being shared. Clients and team members who feel heard are more likely to listen; therefore, listening with the intent of being influenced assists teams in having more open, honest, direct, and forthright communication.

High-performing teams have a combination of high productivity and high morale. For far too long, leaders have focused only on productivity, thinking that if productivity increased, people would feel good about their contributions. In fact, the exact opposite is true. People who feel good about themselves make positive contributions to a team’s morale, which in turn increases productivity.

I’m challenging leaders and teams to put some focused energy into demonstrating empathy with each other. Learn how team members feel and understand what is needed to boost morale within the team and watch what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised.

About The Author
Erin Thorp

Erin Thorp (she/her) is an empathic keynote speaker, writer, and coach for leaders who struggle with conflict, communication, and performance during high-stress times. She supports leaders in navigating difficult conversations, building powerful teams, and communicating with empathy so they can lead confidently.

Having spent 20 years in the masculine-dominated engineering and construction industries leading teams and delivering projects, Erin noticed that her colleagues were highly skilled and cared deeply about their work, but most were incapable of fully holding their own emotion and therefore unable to hold the emotions of others.

After being told time and time again she was “too emotional” and to “pull herself together,” she realized there was a big gap in what was being taught to technical leaders. She knew that skills often categorized as “soft”—connection, empathy, vulnerability—are actually the most difficult to learn but are also key to creating leaders who make an impact in their personal lives, their companies, and the world. At the beginning of the pandemic, Erin did even more-self reflecting and observed the way leaders were treating their employees. Whether they were large corporations, or entrepreneurs, she noticed the same patterns, and ultimately decided to take the matter into her own hands. Erin is now running her leadership business full-time. Instagram: @elthorp