Art Museum Teaching recently posted an article about empathy in the workplace. As always, Mike Murawski’s post was thoughtful and thorough. In reflecting on the article, I wanted to think further about the situations when empathy is lacking in the workplace.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand other’s feelings and act accordingly.  People need to appreciate or perceive emotions and reactions in order to act in an empathetic manner. Emotions are inextricably linked to all human endeavors, including work. In the workplace, emotions are often connected to outcomes. People often feel good when they have successes and badly when they have failures. Emotions also appear in the workplace when co-workers interact. Good connections build positive emotions. Competition can foster negative emotions or positive ones.

In most workplace situations, employees call on their empathy-skills throughout the day:

  • When you walk by a person who had dropped a stack of paper, you have the choice on if you should help. Empathy is one of the reasons that you might stop to help.
  • When you decide to give someone who is uncharacteristically snappy a pass, you are calling on your empathy.
  • When you don’t get snarky about someone’s typo, you are calling on empathy.

True, in each of the above situations, empathy blends into kindness and propriety. But, empathy is aptitude that connects to many other workplace skills. An empathetic individual is a better team member, as well as a better manager.

What are signs that a workplace lacks empathy?

So if empathy is so wonderful in the workplace, why is it often lacking? Well, the polar opposite of empathy might be selfishness/ or self-centered behavior.  These self-serving behaviors can be purposeful or accidental, but both are symptomatic of a lack of empathy and consideration of other people’s emotions. The workplace can be about balancing your personal desires and those of the overall organization. That said, even the most empathetic person seeks some sort of personal benefit from work.

We all have some desire for personal benefits. In most of the workplace, cash-money is the utmost benefit of work. In non-profit, only a small sliver of the workforce can say that they are being paid a living wage or a salary worth crowing about.  In this type of environment, credit can be a form of emotional remuneration. This is a challenging equation, however. Credit is ephemeral, at best, and easy to subvert.  Museums and academic institutions are credential-based cultures. Lab directors, curators, deputy directors are often given credit for the work of their juniors. These subordinates will eventually leave to start their senior positions, becoming grant earners and managers, and then take the credit for the work of their juniors.  So, for the junior person, credit is something to be expected down the road, after years of being underpaid. Now, this is a worst-case scenario, certainly.

But, considering the worst case scenario can be educational when considering how to improve simpler problems. On social media, I solicited responses to this worst-case scenario:

Personal Reactions to Losing Credit

Most people shared their emotional responses to these types of situations: sadness, loathing, frustration, disappointment, anger, hurt. As one person said, “Seething and loathing are my go-to ways to deal with it. Super healthy, I know.” But, realistically, all emotions, including negative ones, are human and important.

Once the emotions are felt, what next? Some talked about using smoke and mirrors, through humor, for example, to “deflect negative attention.” Others talked about immediately jumping towards the next thing as a way to get over the disappointment. Many people also spoke of such experiences as a chance to hone their own skills. “I got smart and I don’t let that person use me anymore.”

Overall, such issues with credit have very real ramifications in the workplace. As one person said, “Sadness, feelings of inadequacy, that then spiraled into feelings of being blocked, and taken advantage of. Ultimately lead me to distrust the decision-making process and start my journey out.”

What does credit mean to the workplace?

This challenge is that without an equitable, liberal distribution of credit, the overall work culture is negative and hierarchical.  In a tiered, siloed environment, those at the lowest levels can feel alienated. Overall, this is not the kind of environment where empathy can be fostered. Instead, people are too self-focused. As one respondent said, “I realized in that instance how much time conflict costs employers. So much headspace and mental space went to conflict on work time the actual work suffered.”

What can be done to improve the situation?

When organizations think about empathy, they need to understand the other emotional factors that might be currently in play in the workforce. Credit theft is a just one tripping point for empathetic workplaces. Poor management, challenging silos, and bad communication are other examples. Ideally, make all of these possibilities part of the conversation as you work on building empathy into your workplace practice.

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