Workplace Culture is built in everyday moments and tested during the difficult moments.

Difficult moments test us at work too and can be determining factors on how we are perceived at doing our jobs.  If your job is a field goal kicker and you miss a game winning field goal during playoffs, people are going to judge.  Difficult moments also challenge our workplace culture.

Culture is tested when someone messes up.  We could have a culture where we believe everyone matters. But that philosophy will be tested the moment we discover we have a lunch bandit.  There are many passive aggressive notes and memes born as a result of the wrong lunches getting eaten after being taken from the employee refrigerator.  

I encourage empathy in these moments.  I know, I know.  Stay with me here.

I aspire to be a person who treats people well in all situations.  I want to be a kind and empathic person. When life is easy, it is easy to live by our values.  It is when life gets difficult that values are tested. For example, it can be challenging for many people to be kind and demonstrate empathy when spending holidays with family.

Please understand these important truths though.

  • You can have empathy and still disagree with someone’s actions.  

  • You can have empathy for someone and still hold them accountable to those actions.  

  • Empathy is not agreement or lack of accountability

  • Empathy is finding the place inside you that understands the emotion that led to the decision, not the decision.

Without empathy in the workplace, people feel like they don’t matter.  When people feel like they don’t matter, there goes trust, there goes loyalty, and likely customer service.  A workforce that feels like they don’t matter, will meet business initiatives with a whole lot of “nope”. Without empathy there goes team members caring about literally anything you want them to care about.  How many workplace conflict incidents have you investigated that involved happy employees?

Empathy is more than just saying the words “I understand”.  We must demonstrate understanding in order to invoke empathy.  We do this by telling our stories.

When we tell our own stories our bodies release Cortisol and Oxytocin. Cortisol is a stress hormone that focuses us on feeling something important. Oxytocin is a feel-good hormone associated with care and connection. When someone shares a story, our brains make an “Empathy Cocktail” and prepares us to feel along with another person.

When preparing for a lunch bandit investigation, we can start by considering their reasons and justification for their actions.  Reasons and justifications are different. For example, the reason someone ate my leftovers may be they forgot their own lunch and they were hungry.  They may justify it because people forget leftovers in the fridge all the time, the food goes to waste and gets thrown out anyway, so the thief may have actually been helping by eating the fridge garbage.

Not every situation needs your story.  We tell our stories when we want people to feel ok opening up to us.  We tell our story in a difficult workplace conversation so people feel comfortable telling us about wrongdoing.

We need connection like we need food and water. It is vital to our existence. It is important to have empathy in the workplace. An Empathic Workplace is the best way we can remain human centric in a digital era.