Exploring Empathy in the Workplace

09-21-22 Quinn Elder

Healthy company culture is integral to the success of any organization, but how is it built, promoted, and nurtured? Explore what empathy means at Sparkbox (and beyond) and how two seemingly disparate ideas about the concept can actually work toward the same goal.

“The state of empathy, or being empathic, is to perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person”

- Carl Rodgers, American psychologist and co-founder of the humanistic approach to psychology


From apprentice to entrepreneur and business owner, I have run the gamut of professional experience. Throughout this journey there’s been a lot to be proud of, though (perhaps surprisingly) my proudest accomplishments have come not from ownership but creating community.

Creating community within an organization is not an easy task. It requires empathy and for good reason. Empathy is one of the most critical concepts in creating an inclusive and diverse work culture.

So how do we even begin to understand how to use empathy in the workplace? Honestly, I don’t have a definitive answer. Although through my personal, headlong dive into the topic has helped me start to unravel what empathy looks like—in a corporate sense—and how it functions in my professional day-to-day.

A Little Background

When I began thinking about writing this article, I was a new developer at Sparkbox. I wanted to dig a little deeper into my new company and explore some of the wonderful things that I was experiencing. Very quickly I was struck by a strong sense of community with an aim toward fostering an inclusive and diverse culture—I wanted to know where this came from, what made it tick, and how it affected our business

While I remained zeroed in on the sense of community at Sparkbox, my explorations into empathy had organically expanded into understanding, how companies are more broadly using empathy to solve a piece of the cultural puzzle. Which, in turn, shed more light on our own culture.

Two Approaches to Empathy at Work

In my research surrounding empathy in the workplace, I noticed two camps begin to form: the altruistic camp and the calculated camp. It seems as though organizations are (primarily) either one or the other in their approach to empathy. Although there’s nothing to suggest that one is necessarily better than the other; some people might prefer one to the other.

Altruistic Empathy

The organizations in the altruistic camp approach empathy from a more personal perspective. This is characterized by thinking about empathy as fundamentally crucial to relationships, people, and life.

When we reciprocate altruistic behaviors in our work environments it places us in a position to be vulnerable. When you show vulnerability, it allows people to feel more comfortable when being open and honest with their concerns, questions, mistakes, and roadblocks, which ultimately allows for needed flexibility, trust, and stronger team performance.

Another wonderful example is Sparkbox (who unquestionably decided to pitch a tent in this camp) sees vulnerability and community building—both among themselves and their client relationships—as integral to success:

“Sparkbox cares strongly about empathy, specifically trust-based empathy, as an equal core value to both fluency and humility. We recognize that good technical skills alone do not make you a functional member of our team. As consultants, we have to understand where our clients are coming from, where they want to be, and why they made the choices they made.” - Catherine Meade, Technical Director at Sparkbox

Calculated Empathy

On the other hand, a calculated approach is when an organization approaches empathy from a cause-and-effect perspective. In this camp, it is believed that “incentives drive behavior, and behavior spawns culture.”

Proponents of calculated empathy will argue that culture can (and often is) shaped by incentivizing or disciplining behaviors.

For example, companies promoting higher education might reward learning opportunities for working adults to combat the fact that fewer traditional-aged students are enrolling in college. Through tailored learning opportunities and higher ed companies might hope to create a culture that rewards continuous learning and growth mindsets.

In this model, empathy is a byproduct of incentive—more personalized learning experiences, flexible options for working students, and the like—not the other way around. The organization isn’t necessarily offering the incentive because it’s the empathetic thing to do, but because there is mutual benefit. However, the results are the same; more empathetic outcomes.

Mid-Point Reflection

As I mentioned previously, one is not necessarily better than the other. They both have their upsides, and I’ll just note that the average company will be influenced by both types:

“When thinking about approaching empathy on an organizational level, there are approaches to certain situations that allow for everyone to win and that is ultimately what we want.” - Jody Thornburg, Director of Humans at Sparkbox

A great example of this duality is incentives. Incentives such as fully paid mental health care, paid vacation, top market salaries, and other perks and packages allow for needed financial diversity while acknowledging that people must take care of themselves and their families. These incentives promote healthy cultures (both mental and physical) which, in turn, can promote a healthy business. If the outcomes are ethical does it really matter how they were arrived at?

The great thing is, that regardless of the organization’s approach, empathy can still be an end result.

Asking Empathy-Driven Questions

Once I took a tour through both camps and gained an understanding of their approaches, I was able to get down to brass tacks. I asked my fellow Sparkboxers some questions about our own company culture. Here’s what I was most interested in.

My Questions

  • What does empathy in the workplace mean to you?
  • What is our company doing to approach empathy and why?
  • Has empathy aided in the creation of long-lasting partnerships with our clients? If so, how?
  • How has the empathy that our company has created internally reached our clients?
  • What is developer empathy and what does that mean to you?

Thanks to my informal survey of colleagues, I was able to gain greater insight into where Sparkbox stands on empathy. This exploration, ironically enough, led to new conversations that created stronger bonds with my co-workers and helped me gain a deeper understanding of our organization’s embrace of empathy.

Here’s what I found:

Ben Callahan (President & Owner)
“We look for empathetic people, people who understand how their decisions will impact the rest of the team. We also recognize that empathy must start with trust and that trust takes time to build. Sparkboxers are willing to do the work to earn each others’ trust, leading to a highly empathetic culture.”
Ben Goshow (Developer)
“It certainly means talking to and about others with respect and dignity at all times and in all venues. It means giving grace when mistakes are made, or where there is room for improvement, and it means starting every interaction from a position of humility.”
Mandy Kendall (Developer)
First, there is a company’s empathy for their employees. Second, is a person’s empathy for their co-workers. The third is empathy for a client. Finally, there is user empathy. This is (or should be) at the heart of what we make.”
Kaisa Butcher (People Care Manager)
“To me, empathy in the workplace means recognizing everyone’s humanity. We bring our experiences, backgrounds, beliefs, emotions, interests, and passions to work every day. This means offering benefits geared toward the whole person, celebrating personal and professional victories, grieving personal and professional losses, and creating a culture where honesty and transparency are the norms.”

Understanding The Process

Thinking over the information I gathered and the conversations that were had, I began to wonder: “What can I carry with me moving forward; what does all this mean?”

I ultimately came to the conclusion that there are many ways an organization can approach empathy in the workplace, but intentionality is paramount.

There are wonderful outcomes that come from thinking about how others think and feel, but being intentional when building trust can be difficult and can take time—especially in the workplace. This is why I believe when we look at empathy within organizations (altruistic, calculated, or otherwise), we have to start with ourselves.

I’ve determined that I must first figure out what I want as an individual and then strive to find and create environments where I can make the biggest impact. In doing so, I will inevitably find myself surrounded by people who cherish the same approaches.

For example, I wanted to find a workplace that shared my ideals and approaches to empathy because I knew that was the type of culture that I needed to create and build on top of. So when I found Sparkbox I knew immediately that this was the place that met my needs and aspirations. Sparkbox was intentional and altruistic about its approach to empathy from the jump; something that attracted me. This may not be true for everyone. Others may work better in a calculated empathy environment. You’ve got to find what works for you.

Establishing what empathy means for yourself, your co-workers, and your employer is a powerful way to create opportunities for growing trust with ourselves, our environment, and our careers. When we approach people in the right way for the right reasons, we can build cultures that thrive with empathy. And through these cultures, we inevitably are investing in people while creating long-lasting partnerships.

Empathy is intertwined with everything that we do.

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