Author says fostering empathetic culture in workplace is 'ultimate win-win'

December 15, 2021


Being empathetic is not only good for humanity, it's good for business in the view of author and brand strategist Maria Ross.


"It's the ultimate win-win," said Ross, who shared her perspective during a webinar titled "You're on Mute! — Fostering an Empathetic Culture in the Changing Workplace." The webinar was part of CHA's two-day Mission Leader Virtual Seminar in mid-November.

Ross referenced research that she cites in her book The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success and on her website in building her case that empathy makes the workplace better not only for workers, but also for customers, clients and patients.

A slide shared by author Maria Ross during her webinar on empathy for CHA cites results from a study by Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on improving the workplace for women. The slide compares the responses from the study of employees who viewed their leaders as empathetic (in red) to those who did not. The Catalyst study was released in September.

She had a revelation about the power of empathy during a long stay for treatment of and recovery from a ruptured brain aneurysm at Harborview Medical Center and UW Medical Center – Montlake in Seattle. The facilities are affiliated with the University of Washington School of Medicine.

She said the hospital's patient- and family-centered care philosophy incorporates practices, protocols and trainings that make patients and their loved ones feel seen and heard. Those practices start with "little things," like having caregivers knock and announce themselves before entering patients' rooms and addressing patients by their first names, and continue from there to keep the focus of care on the needs and desires of patients.

"It was my first aha moment that you can create an empathetic organization and not just say a prayer and hope that you hired really nice people," Ross said.

She considers empathy key to creating a workplace where staff and clients are treated with kindness and respect. She defines empathy as "being willing and able to see, understand and, where appropriate, feel another person's perspective and feelings and further use that understanding to act compassionately."

Ross pointed to studies that have shown empathy can spur innovation and productivity, boost engagement and collaboration and drive performance and profits. Among the studies she referenced was research done by Google on products it considers its most innovative. The company found that those products didn't come from the teams whose members were "rock stars in computer science and technology," Ross says, but rather from teams "that ranked higher in empathy, communication, compassion and the ability to collaborate."


Mary Anne Sladich-Lantz, senior vice president, mission and formation with Providence St. Joseph Health, was Ross' co-presenter in the webinar. She noted that incorporating empathy into the workplace aligns with Catholic health care practitioners' "deep conviction of the sanctity of every single human life as an expression of the divine in the world."

Ross urged organizations to encourage — and care providers to adopt — three practices to promote empathy. They are:

1. Practice presence. Develop a daily mindfulness habit, such as deep breathing, knitting, avoiding screens, doing yoga or reading Bible verses to ground oneself and to make space for others' points of view.

2. Be curious and actively listen. Three helpful tactics are: Ask ("Tell me more"), affirm ("What I hear you saying is …") and enrich (say "Yes, and …" to build on what the other person is saying).

3. Find common ground. Do this by stating a shared goal out loud, discerning without judging and assuming good intent on the part of others.

In the end, Ross said, the culture of an organization is what fosters and sustains empathy in a workplace. To develop that culture, she said, employers have to create practices built on values such as respect and inclusivity and then reward them. In doing that, she said, organizations tell employees: "This is what we deem important and this is how you succeed here."

Sladich-Lantz said rewarding workers who embrace and act on empathic practices is a way to celebrate people, which is something organizations should remember to do. "All of us want some sense of affirmation that who we are and how we are is recognized," she said.

Tools for assessing and building empathy

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