Why Empathy Is Not Enough to Build Great Teams

If you’re a leader at work, you’re likely familiar with the importance of empathy and how it impacts interactions with employees and customers alike. After all, those who display authentic empathy in leadership have an advantage over their peers who don’t. But how much do we understand this key element of human relationships? Is it enough to just “be empathetic” at work and expect our teams to perform at their best?

Our own research and data here at RallyBright shows us how empathy alone isn’t enough to build great teams. Rather, it’s one of several key factors in driving the collaborative and inclusive culture teams need to not only succeed, but exceed expectations in the workplace. So what else do you need besides empathy? What are those other key factors that drive high-performing teams to do their best every day?

Empathy, Support and Compassion

Many people in management roles understand the importance of empathy in leadership, and so they often make an effort to both cultivate and display this skill at work. Employees are aware of these efforts, but they don’t always feel these attempts are genuine on the part of their managers and executives at the office. 

Empathy is the ability to understand and connect with the emotions of another person, as well as the ability to act on that understanding by cultivating an attitude of acceptance, consideration and curiosity. Empathy is also tied to compassion—our willingness to help others at our own expense. We display empathy to others through our compassion. When empathy in teams is high, team members are willing to look beyond their own point of view, making decisions with careful consideration to the potential impact on others. Displaying empathy and compassion at work is the surest way to foster a safe, welcoming and productive workplace where employees are motivated to put their best foot forward.

However, empathy and compassion aren’t enough for building great teams. Empathy and support together form the key underpinnings of compassion–without one or the other, employees will often struggle to thrive. Support, like empathy, is our willingness to help others, even if it means going outside of our defined roles and responsibilities. Supporting our teammates means offering them a helping hand, sticking around to answer just one more question and following through with the promises we make to our teams. When support is high on teams, people will ask their teammates for help more often and they will go out of their way to give that help, too.

If you feel empathy on your teams is high, but there is still something missing, it’s possible that support is the missing ingredient. Leading psychologist Daniel Goleman argues that empathy alone rarely leads to the right actions we need to take in the workplace. He explains, “For actual compassionate action we need more than empathy, which is largely passive and internally experienced: it takes active concern.” This active concern is the support that needs to accompany empathy and compassion.

A 2021 survey from Ernst & Young LLP found that 90% of US workers “believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction—and 79% agree it decreases employee turnover.” However, in the same survey, almost half of employees (46%) “feel that their company’s efforts to be empathetic toward employees are dishonest” and 42% of employees report a lack of follow-through from their company when it comes to keeping promises. So employees may perceive their managers as empathetic, but they also feel their managers lack follow-through with support. This likely doesn’t reflect a lack of caring on the part of managers—it’s more likely that many managers don’t know what concrete steps to take to activate support. The most successful leaders will cultivate the skills to combine empathy, support and compassion for their teams and employees.

Using Empathy and Support to Work Better Together

Teams that view their leaders as empathetic, compassionate and supportive are more likely to perform better than teams whose leaders lack one or more of these qualities. When a manager goes out of their way to not only help their employees feel seen and heard, but to also support their needs, their employees will value their leadership. 

Employees who value their managers and executives are less likely to quit their jobs. In 2021 with the Great Resignation, McKinsey found that the top three factors employees cited as reasons for quitting were that they didn’t feel valued by their organizations (54%), or they didn’t feel valued by their managers (52%) or because they lacked a sense of belonging in the workplace (51%). Even in the future once the Great Resignation moves behind us, employees will continue to value organizations that value them.

Team cultures that value support are critical for retaining talent. In order to create an empathetic, supportive and compassionate team culture, it’s important to maintain habits that align with these values. As your team members learn to lean on each other more, they’ll naturally become more collaborative over time, leading to greater trust within your organization. A culture of empathy, compassion and support is how high-performing teams grow and thrive.

Goals for Leaders Driving Supportive Team Cultures

As leaders, it’s up to us to set the tone for our company’s culture. So how do we do so? How do we maintain a culture that embraces empathy in leadership? Here are three guidelines that can help you stay on track. 

1. Engage team members in the discovery of and connection with your organization’s purpose and values.

Ensure your employees are connected to this purpose—whatever it might be—whether it’s providing amazing products for customers, offering the best products to other companies or something else. When your team members understand and connect with your organization’s purpose, they will also align themselves with the vision and values of your company. Having that alignment is critical to shaping your employee’s goals with their work. If you can tie this alignment to team specific purpose, it can have even more impact This will also create an environment where teammates feel committed to supporting one another in working towards a common purpose.

2. Demonstrate to employees how you connect with your company’s values.

Communicate to your team members often about how you personally connect with your organization’s values. By making values a normal part of everyday work conversations, you are mapping behaviors back to values and also reinforcing that these values are your organization’s north star. In larger organizations with many teams, you may even want to define a distinct set of team values. Align your employees with company or team values, and they’ll be more deeply connected through those values.

3. Model what great support looks like.

Support can be emotional, like listening to your employees or encouraging them through a rough project. Or support can be more practical, like troubleshooting or brainstorming solutions together. The best support bypasses micromanagement or “saving the day,” and instead aims to coach employees through obstacles. 

Aim to develop deeper relationships with each of your employees to explore what’s supportive for them and what isn’t. By learning what each individual needs to thrive, you’ll help your team members perform at their best for your company.

Encouraging compassion-in-action at work will lead to promising results in the future. Taking everyone’s personal needs into consideration may seem daunting, but your employees will notice your efforts and respond in kind. Over time, your team members will feel more comfortable working with one another, asking for help and going out of their way to support one another. These factors are critical in creating high-performing teams that not only work for your company’s mission, but also believe in the success of the business and serve as its greatest champions. 

The RallyBright platform helps leaders build collaborative and inclusive teams that deliver superior business impact. Request a demo and we’ll show you how RallyBright can start empowering your organization in just 10 days.