How to use empathy to get ahead at work

Each issue, we ask an expert to solve a pressing career problem. This time, employment lawyer and HR consultant Matt Dean explains why empathy is so vital to a healthy, productive workplace

‘I hate the cut-throat atmosphere at work. Is there a way to act differently and still get ahead?’

Truth is, the atmosphere you and your colleagues create probably doesn’t sit well with anyone in the office. We just never talk about it or think about the role we have to play in creating that atmosphere. Human beings don’t thrive in climates of fear. Yet still we create them. Existing in them becomes the norm: we keep our heads down and our objectives become the focus – often at the expense of our mental health.

For more than a decade I’ve asked people to complete the following phrase: ‘Happy people…’ Occasionally I get an outlier response – last summer, people in Liverpool said ‘Smile!’ – but 95 per cent of the time the response is consistent: ‘Happy people… work harder.’ It’s a simple truth. If you feel valued and supported by the people around you, you’ll care more and contribute more, and you’ll try harder. Things will be sustainable in a way they can’t possibly be in a climate of fear.

There’s growing evidence to support the view that engaged, rather than competitive, workforces drive world-class performance. Google’s epic investigation into the norms that drive the performance of its outstanding teams (Project Aristotle, 2016) identified the psychological safety of team members as the key. That sort of safety is enjoyed when your colleagues display social sensitivity towards you and everyone gets a turn in the conversation (and is listened to).

For years, my job involved talking to senior people in banks and City firms about the workplace culture they want, and then talking to groups of their leaders about what they’re actually creating. Very early on I was struck by the fact that the most senior people understand the ‘people stuff’ matters and (this is more of a generalisation, but feels true) the group below them simply don’t. So maybe choosing this path is actually the way to ensure you progress?

‘Engaged, rather than competitive, workforces drive world-class performance’

What matters to the less senior group is the numbers. They take some persuading that it’s how people feel that actually drives the numbers. I’ll never forget being asked, about 20 minutes into a discussion with a dozen international law firm partners in 2015: ‘You do know what we do here don’t you? We’re lawyers, we do law. You’ve spent about 20 minutes talking about emotion. I don’t understand.’

For me, your alternative is simple. Firstly, understand you have power in your workplace: if not you, who? If not now, when? The time is right – #MeToo and the advent of millennials in workplaces means employers are far more conscious of potential abuses of power. You need to start the conversation: talk to people around you, share how you feel, find out what bothers them about the atmosphere you work in. Don’t BMW (bitch, moan and whinge). Focus on what you can do to improve things, then agree some simple actions, because the human things (like how we feel at work) matter most.

Matt Dean is founder of HR consultants Byrne Dean. His book, The Soft Stuff; Reclaiming Kindness for the World of Work, is out now