Ever wondered if there is a secret ingredient that will make you stand out and become successful at the workplace? We now have the answer: It’s empathy!

In February 2021, researchers at the University of Cambridge published their findings from a year-long study on the effect of teaching young pupils to be empathetic. To their surprise, they found that this led to a significant increase in their creative and general problem-solving abilities. 

Researchers assessed the creativity and empathetic behavior of young children from two London schools using a combination of psychometric tests and activities. 

Students at one school followed the usual curriculum-prescribed lessons, while those in the other were given various creative and empathetic tools to solve real-world problems that encouraged them to think about the perspectives and feelings of others. 

The second group showed a marked increase in emotional and cognitive empathy, which resulted in higher overall creativity scores. At the end of the year, creativity scores among the second group were 78% higher than the first group. 

Empathy refers to the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their perspective. Creativity is the process of creating something new and original, which didn’t exist before. 

While these two concepts may seem quite distinct from one another, at their core, empathy and creativity require you to pay attention to what’s happening around you. Christopher Adkins, Associate Teaching Professor at Mendoza College of Business, explains that the word ‘attention’ means to “stretch toward” in Latin. And by empathizing with someone, you stretch outside yourself and into the other person’s world. Empathy equips you to be an effective problem-solver because it enables you to determine what the problem is and who has the problem. 

The link between empathy and creativity has been the subject of many research studies and magazine articles. But the University of Cambridge study stands out for highlighting the importance of teaching and learning the skill of empathy to creatively solve real-world problems. 

In the 21st century, empathy and creativity are regarded as vital skills to possess on their own. In fact, the 2020 LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report lists them as two of the most in-demand skills to thrive at the workplace.

As problems in our lives and even at the workplace become more complex, we need to address and overcome some unprecedented challenges. This requires a high level of creativity and innovation. 

Many organizations attempt to motivate employees through rewards and other incentives to churn out creative solutions. This is a limiting approach. The need of the hour is individual accountability to unleash creativity that is motivated by empathy. 

One human-centered process of finding solutions is called design thinking, which requires you to understand human behavior. According to designer David Kelley, founder of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, design thinking is a five-phase process. 

The process requires you to empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. The first and perhaps the most important stage of this process involves putting the focus on the user or customer and understanding their needs, behaviors and aspirations. Empathy becomes the missing link that connects you and your team to excellence. 

How To Build Empathy

Here are some techniques that you can use to enhance your empathy and succeed at work and in life.

  1. Step Out Of Your Comfort Zone

One way to enhance your empathy is to step out of your comfort zone. This refers to the comfort of your physical environment as well as the rut of your daily routine. Attempt to challenge yourself by learning a new skill such as a foreign language or a musical instrument. Traveling to new places and experiencing different cultures can help you develop an appreciation for how things are done there. Who knows, maybe you can apply some of your learnings to your own life. 

  1. Assess Your Biases

We tend to become victims of our own biases, unconscious and conscious. While it is tempting to believe that you are being objective and unbiased in your decision-making, chances are you’re not. So the next time you need to make a decision about hiring someone new or even considering someone for a promotion, engage in slow and deliberate thinking rather than rushing the process.

  1. Become Curious 

At some point in our lives, we run the risk of becoming too set in our own ways and develop a narrow view of the world. This is why it's important to inculcate a sense of curiosity. By encouraging your young employees, clients, colleagues and even managers to share their perspectives and insights with you, you can develop a deeper understanding of those around you. 

  1. Get Regular Feedback

Feedback is one of the most underrated ways of becoming more empathetic. Regular check-ins with your family, friends, and colleagues will benefit you immensely by getting honest feedback on the progress you are making to strengthen your empathy and mastering other critical skills.

For more on design thinking and how empathy can unlock your creative potential, check out Harappa’s Unleashing Creativity course!

Akanksha Singh is an Associate in the Curriculum team at Harappa Education. A postgraduate in Social Cognition, Akanksha spends her free time binge-watching animated movies and telling people that she can’t read their minds.

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