Pity Versus Empathy and Its Affect in the Workplace

Jan 08, 2022
Pity Versus Empathy and Its Affect in the Workplace

In this volatile and constantly changing world, we are called upon as leaders to navigate. We may not know what is coming next, we can build a resilient culture and demonstrate the ideals/skills that are needed to move through our challenges. 

Here in Colorado, our most recent challenge is dealing with a freak wildfire that tore through large neighborhoods quite suddenly just before we rang in the new year.  Over 1000 homes and structures were incinerated over the course of 5 hours in the Louisville/Superior area of Boulder County.  The inferno was fueled by winds over 100 miles per hour and many of the first responders were only able to watch and assist with evacuations instead of trying to stop this horrific situation.  As if to add insult to injury, freezing temperatures and snow followed, making it even more difficult to assess the damage (though it helped to douse the hot spots).

The destruction that remains left many displaced or homeless.  Residential homes, business places and home based businesses became eviscerated or completely charred to dust.  Our local community is grieving our losses and coming together in new ways never before seen. The relevance and importance of how leaders show up has never been more powerful.  

It is becoming clearer that these challenges define not only who we are but also what kind of culture we choose to build.  Leaders are being called upon to adapt to new situations and pivot quickly.  One important way to navigate our challenges together is to clarify pity versus empathy. 

Pity is defined as the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others. Examples of pity in the workplace: 

  1. Feeling sorry for a colleague 
    • “Wow…sucks to be you buddy!”
  2. Assessing quickly with little information.
    • “Of course she is late for work, must be because she slept through her alarm.”

An easy way this can manifest is for a team to talk about the other person when they are not in the room in a way that is problem oriented instead of solution focused. 

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Examples of empathy in workplace:

  1. Avoidance of quick judgment 
    • Be sure all information is gathered before making a decision.  This includes willingness to stay in the question.
  2. Active and reflective listening. 
    • “so what I am hearing from you is…”
  3. Validation 
    • “Wow that sounds really challenging.”

Empathy begets trust and sometimes we need to communicate to each other just for the sake of being heard or seen.  It is all too easy to move quickly to an answer instead of leaving space for the question.  Here is one to consider, “What do you think you need?”

I have often heard it said that employees don’t quit their jobs, they quit their managers.

So what kind of leader are you and what kind of culture do you want to design? 

How does empathy or pity show up in your team?