Getting By With a Little Help From Your Friends

What role does empathy play in the work place?


A story that my friend told me once has always stuck with me, we’ll call her Amy for the purposes of this retelling. I remember hearing her complain for weeks and weeks about a particular colleague of hers. In an attempt to strengthen bonds within her newly formed work team, her manager had encouraged them all to work together to meet their latest deadlines and to work collaboratively on all of their current projects.

Amy has always prided herself on her ability to make friends and work with others, so she saw this development as a great opportunity to get to know her teammates. At first, she seemed to get along swimmingly with them all. However, soon it was very clear that one colleague in particular was going to be an issue for her.  Over many phone calls and morning coffees Amy shared the struggles she was experiencing with this colleague of hers, who we will call Alex. Alex routinely missed team meetings, would regularly turn up late, could be irritable and dismissive, and worst of all in my friend’s eyes, was a procrastinator.  Amy has always been a very organised person. She lives her life through her planner and has always been the one to organise every detail of a group trip or night out. So she had, to no one’s surprise, easily fallen into the role of “team organiser” with her work colleagues. She quickly found out that Alex had a habit of leaving his work to the last possible minute, working in short bursts of productivity rather than in organised segments until the deadline, like Amy would have preferred. Amy liked to discuss group progress on their various deadlines in the organised weekly meetings she had set up for her team. She liked to make sure that all team members were on the same page in order to provide aid to those who found themselves somewhat behind.


A lack of understanding often creates a lack of empathy.


She seemed to think that most of her teammates found these meetings helpful and easily provided updates on their current progress. However, Amy found that whenever Alex was asked about the work he was responsible for, his answers were blunt, defensive and dismissive. Amy could not understand why Alex was being so deliberately unhelpful and standoffish. She lamented to me that Alex was deliberately not being a team player, and that if he was worried about not being able to reach the deadlines on time, then he could simply ask for help instead of lashing out.  I advised Amy to speak to Alex and attempt to probe the topic gently with him instead of jumping to her own conclusions about the situation and forcing her own assumptions onto her coworker. Amy begrudgingly agreed and promised to carefully bring the issue up with Alex in private the next day. Amy and I met up for dinner a few days later. When I greeted her at the table she had pre- booked, she seemed to be in a much better mood. I didn’t even need to ask her if she had had that conversation with Alex before the story poured out of her.


Get curious, instead of sticking with assumptions, opens new doors for communication.


She informed me that she had carefully broached the subject with Alex in private in the office at the end of the day. She had explained her frustration and confusion with her coworker as politely as she could. She said that at first Alex seemed to be slightly bristled by her words before sighing and explaining his side of the story.

Alex explained that he had found Amy’s tendency to be over-organised extremely suffocating. He informed Amy that he liked to be able to complete his assigned work in his own time and didn’t like feeling like Amy was “breathing down their neck” all the time. Amy was somewhat taken aback by this. She felt that she had just been trying to help and had stepped up to the organiser position as no one else had. She bit back the hurt she felt and instead made the effort to hear her coworker out.  Alex continued and explained that while many of the other members of the team liked the structure that Amy’s organising provided, he just didn’t feel the same. Alex concluded that he was sorry for being dismissive and defensive, but that he had just not known how to bring up the issue with Amy without seeming rude.

Amy thanked Alex for explaining himself and agreed to stop micromanaging, and to develop more faith in her team, if Alex promised to make more of an effort to attend team meetings and become more of a team player.  Amy concluded to me that while she had seen this opportunity to work more closely with her colleagues as a chance to get to know them better, she had not actually tried to get to know them past their status as coworkers. She reflected that she honestly did not know any of her coworkers on a personal level and could definitely not call any of them friends. She decided that she was going to make a better effort to actually get to know her coworkers, as her experience with Alex had told her that understanding your coworkers greatly improves your ability to work together.


Empathy is an important work-place skill.



Empathy is one of the most useful skills a person can have both in the workplace and outside of it. Empathy has been defined as “the ability to understand someone else’s feelings and experiences”, an ability which allows people to better understand the perspectives of others. Having empathy for your coworkers, making the effort to understand and communicate with them, just as Amy and Alex did, can serve to improve working relationships. Empathy, and both the communication and understanding that comes with it, allows individuals to learn about other’s preferences, their working styles, and even their personal life. All of these details help us to further empathise with and understand the perspectives and motivations of our coworkers, and therefore learn how to effectively work with them. Utilising empathy as a tool within the workplace has been connected to both effective workplace communication, as well as overall organisational
success (References: 1, 2, 3, 4).

Reflecting on this story do you feel that you have made an effort to personally get to know your coworkers? Does Alex remind you of any coworkers you currently have or have had in the past?

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