We recently published a piece explaining how happiness promotes productivity and highlighted several cost-effective perks for employers to boost employee happiness. Similarly, employers can also harness empathy and altruism to increase happiness in the workplace.
What are Empathy and Altruism?
Simply put, empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the feelings of another person. Altruism is the selfless concern for the well-being of others. While two distinct social phenomena, empathy and altruism relate when put into the context of the 21st-century workplace. Both behaviors fall under the idea of “positive affect” and “companionate love”. Researchers employ these traits when investigating the implications of positive emotions in the office.
Empathy and Altruism in the Workplace
Empathy and altruism in the workplace foster greater levels of office camaraderie and encourage employees to make more selfless choices. A study at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that altruists are more likely to be committed to their work and less likely to quit their jobs. Examining the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which surveys 10,000 Wisconsin high school graduates from the class of 1957, researchers demonstrated that those who routinely help others are happier than those who do not.
A recent Catalyst study led by Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib found a positive association between selfless acts by managers and increased innovation by employees. Furthermore, employees who observe altruistic behavior in their leaders are more likely to feel included in their work teams and engage in team citizenship behavior, such as picking up slack for an absent colleague. These findings resonate with previous research confirming that observed altruism results in individual status gains among groups. This provides a greater potential for elevated status as the personal cost of an altruistic act increases.
The Business of Empathy and Altruism
Another study similarly asked employees to rate their CEOs in terms of four traits: Integrity, Compassion, Forgiveness, and Responsibility. Executive development firm, KRW International, reports that CEOs earning high character marks had an average return on assets of 9.35%. This is nearly five times the 1.93% of their low ranking counterparts. While dramatic, this margin is not all that surprising. Stanford University research psychologist Emma Seppala cites neuroimaging research. The study confirmed how our brains respond better to bosses who have shown us empathy. And, as a result, this established a link between workplace trust and performance.
Business writer Jayson Boyers aptly notes that “relationship-focused success expands capacity and potential, and empathy is a business skill that actually grows when practiced and shared.”. Empathy and altruism are skills we develop, rather than static personality traits. This notion is key for businesses hoping to incorporate a positive emotional outlook into workplace culture.
Empathy and Altruism in Practice
While in practice it may seem overwhelming, the research of James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis is encouraging. Fowler and Christakis studied 5,000 people over 20 years and discovered people surrounded by happier people tended to be happier in the future. According to Fowler, “We found a statistical relationship not just between your happiness and your friends’ happiness, but between your happiness and your friends’ friends’ friends’ happiness.” In lay terms, practicing altruism and empathy is statistically more likely to produce an outward ripple through your social network that will find its way back to you via the growing compassion of your peers.
In the coming weeks, we encourage you to be attentive to opportunities to practice your compassion. Turn an earnest mistake into a teachable moment or a disagreement over strategy as a chance to broaden your perspective. If you notice an overwhelmed colleague this week, consider offering to pick up their lunch. Altruism and empathy are one of the most effective means of improving emotional culture. Plus, they also produce tangible benefits in the workplace. The best part: the only limit to how much you get is how much you give.