According to Harvard Business Review (HBR), 99% of surveyed working adults in the US report having worked with at least one person who lacks social and self-awareness. While 73% of respondents indicate it was a coworker, 32% report it was their boss.
A lack of self-awareness in a boss or colleague is not just embarrassing; it is detrimental to an organization’s success. HBR reports that the “consequences of working with unaware colleagues include increased stress, decreased motivation, and a greater likelihood of leaving one’s job.”
After looking back and counting my 53 jobs (and bosses), I certainly recall working with more than a few colleagues or bosses without it. In my latest book, “Mean People Suck: How empathy leads to bigger profits and a better life,” I detail my experiences with people who, well, just suck in the workplace and how awareness can yield positive returns in our careers.
The connection between self-awareness and empathy
If you look up the synonym for empathy, “awareness of” will appear as a result. It’s not an accident. The two traits are part of the five components of emotional intelligence, defined as “the ability to deal with other people successfully.” In fact, the ability to be self-aware has been linked to one’s capacity for empathy.
A 2017 study placed 161 participants in a “contemplative training” course that taught them about the sub-personalities such as the “happy voice or “inner critic.” The goal was to get participants to recognize the different parts of themselves. Those who are able to do so became more aware of their own tendencies and patterns. In turn, it helped them navigate their relationships and how we connect with others.
“By definition, when you become more aware of yourself, you also become more aware of others,” the report stated. “Because the self/other dichotomy becomes clearer, and you begin to recognize the ways you are both similar and different from others in your thinking and feeling.”
Or, as many of us define empathy, “walking in another’s shoes.” It gives us the ability to understand what others are going through, either because we’ve been through it ourselves or we can imagine what it would feel like if we did.
My bottom line premise is that “empathy for others is the key to getting the lives and careers we want.”
Using empathy to improve your career
Let’s face it. No one wants to be that person who sends their colleagues or, even worse, a boss, cringing from something we said in a client meeting. Nor do we want to be the employee who sucks because we only talk about ourselves.
Most employees who suck, suck because they are just downright mean. They likely disrupt meetings, make inappropriate comments, bully others, or mansplain. They use subtle ways to subjugate lower-level employees, women, or diverse populations.
The best way to avoid these situations is by practicing awareness and empathy. When people have compassion for those around them – colleagues, bosses, loved ones, and even their customers – things take a turn for the better.
In the book, I list five ways you can start utilizing empathy to improve their career to avoid being an employee who sucks:
1. Learn to listen
I admit this is easier said than done. “We’re all distracted by what’s going on around us—our phone buzzing, the 129 emails in our inbox, our friend’s updates on Facebook or Snapchat.”
When we ask someone a question, we need to genuinely listen to their answers and not be thinking about your response. It requires putting your agenda aside and trying to understand that person’s perspective.
Listening is not, however, an entirely selfless act. Think about what you may learn by listening to a colleague or customer. The knowledge gained could result in a better working environment or a profitable idea.
2. Try being kind
If you feel like the world has become less compassionate, it is not your imagination. According to the University of Michigan School for Social Research, we are 40% less likely to describe ourselves as empathetic now than we were 40 years ago. The steepest decline has been within the last decade.
I recommend we simply go back to the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. It doesn’t take much effort at all. You may be surprised by how far a simple “good morning” and a sincere “how are you?” can take you.
3. Don’t take it personally
Dr. Emilian Simon-Thomas at the University of California, Berkeley has found that how people respond to adversity is one of the key indicators that determine happiness at work.
When you make a mistake or get scolded by your boss, there are typically two reactions that people experience. The first is to become defensive and avoid putting yourself out for future projects. Conversely, you can think of it as a temporary experience and work to be better next time.
She teaches us that with every setback and obstacle, you have the choice to go backward or to go forward. Your choice will go far in dictating your effectiveness as an employee and, in the long run, your overall happiness.
4. Remember the good times
The truth is that we are not going to love all of our jobs. Over the course of my 53 roles, I admit I did not love many of them but I did enjoy my at least some combination of colleagues, managers and companies in all of them. Even when we are unhappy or dissatisfied, we have to remember it’s not all negative.
We spend so much of our time at work that, even if we hate our jobs, we are bound to share laughs and experience our share of memorable moments with other employees. We need to think about the friendships made and what we have learned even in less than desirable jobs.
5. Find meaning in what we do
Similarly to finding the positive in each work environment, I recommend everyone do a little soul-searching and find meaning in what we do. Many of us land in our careers because we have a specific skill set that is valuable to the job market. However, it does not necessarily translate to passion.
However, employees who fail to find meaning in a job they dislike can be detrimental to the overall success of the company. Research indicates that customers can sense how employees feel about their work. Not only can this impact an organization’s relationship with its customers, but it can also be toxic to coworkers.
No job is perfect in every way. However, we can mitigate the drudgery by asking ourselves what kind of person we want to be. The answer to this question helps us get through the monotony and ultimately find meaning in our work.
Be a kind, cool, self-aware employee
By following these five steps to becoming more empathetic at work, you will start to notice a shift in your day-to-day life. Not only will you be happier in your job, but your colleagues and managers will notice the change as well. After all, mean people suck, and life is too short to be miserable.