15.04.2021 | Blog 2 |

Empathy – a crucial soft skill in professional life

| When it comes to finding the perfect match between company and candidate, soft skills (cognitive potential as well as personal preferences) are becoming increasingly important in addition to so-called hard skills (expertise, background and education). This can be seen not least in current job advertisements, which are increasingly focusing on criteria such as communication or teamwork skills – in other words, qualities that relate to a candidate’s social competencies rather than technical skills.

But isn’t it much more important to take a step back and ask generally what favors skills in this area in the first place?

While many factors are used to determine the level of social skills, numerous studies highlight that the importance of empathy in the workplace is the most relevant in the current situation. Empathy is an indispensable competency in terms of employee well-being and leadership, as well as existential to the success of any organization.


What does empathy mean?

The term empathy originates from psychology and describes the ability and willingness to empathize with the human counterpart and to sensitively understand and empathize with their emotional state, views and situation. It encompasses behavior as well as mental states. Moreover, empathy forms a critical characteristic of prosocial behavior and effectiveness in the workplace (Clark et al., 2019). Thus, it has not only an interpersonal but also a real economic impact.


The different forms of empathy

At the scientific level, there is a differentiation between three forms of empathy, which differ in their modes of action. Clark et al. describe empathy as a multidimensional construct that can be differentiated into emotional, cognitive and behavioral empathy.


Emotional / Affective Empathy

Emotional empathy represents phylogenetically – that is, in terms of the phylogenetic development of humans – the earliest form of empathy (Clark et al., 2019). It describes the ability to adapt compassionately to the same emotional state of the other person. Emotional empathy is thereby automatic, instinctual, and stimulus-driven. Additionally, it is based on social-cognitive processes that occur within the brain and unconsciously follow a stimulus-response scheme.

A concrete example is provided by Sagi and Hoffmann: Newborn infants who are only a few days old tend to cry as well in response to the crying of another infant. Infants exposed to this crying were significantly more likely to cry than those in a silent environment or exposed to synthetic crying. Accordingly, empathy in this context embodies an affective, instinct-driven response to the environment.


Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to understand the inner emotional state of one’s counterpart. In other words, it describes the ability to empathize with another person. Compared to emotional empathy, cognitive empathy develops later in human development, once the basic cognitive abilities have been developed. This includes, for example, the ability to differentiate oneself from others or the competence to draw cognitive conclusions. The understanding of the emotional state of one’s counterpart can be derived on the basis of a set of rules of one’s own empirical values, which are activated in certain brain areas. Cognitive empathy can result from mental perspective-taking or from a basis in one’s own personal experiential values.


Behavioral empathy

Behavioral empathy describes empathic behavior in terms of behavioral facial expressions or empathic communication. In this context, facial expressions and gestures, habits, syntax, speech style or conversational tone are adapted or imitated to the counterpart.  Empathic communication also includes paraphrasing, questioning, and nonverbal statements. For example, a simple nod of the head in a certain situation can also be seen as approving empathic behavior, while in others it can be interpreted as impolite or informal. Thus, what is important in behavioral empathy is the specific context to which one’s behavior must be appropriate. A person who always behaves appropriately even in critical situations can be said to have a high level of behavioral empathy.


Why empathy is so important in the workplace

Whether it’s hiring new staff, retaining or developing employees, empathy represents a critical criterion that has a direct impact on corporate culture and success. The following correlations stand out:


Motivation – Productivity – Success

A work environment in which empathy is practiced particularly vividly increases the motivation and productivity of employees and is ultimately conducive to the success of the company. This is primarily due to significantly improved relationships. Good social interaction in the workplace promotes helpfulness and support among each other and strengthens cohesion within a team as well as the entire company. As a result, motivation and productivity increase more significantly than in companies where empathy is not implemented in practice.

Especially at the management level, empathy represents a critical, necessary leadership competence. Particularly with regard to employees, empathic behavior is goal-oriented and success-enhancing, as employees’ needs can be identified and satisfactory options or solutions to problems can be concretely addressed. As a result, well-being is considerably strengthened.

Furthermore, empathic behavior helps to achieve a better judgment of work processes. The willingness to understand my counterpart strongly promotes optimizing work processes and tailoring them more effectively to the respective employee. So empathy is a significant process and efficiency driver!


Satisfaction – length of service

Empathy also contributes to an employee’s satisfaction and length of stay with a company. It is evident that within an empathic environment, satisfied employees maintain a more understanding relationship with colleagues and supervisors and feel more comfortable in their job because of it. This encourages them to continue to stay in that environment. By breaking the turnover of staff, it saves the company the time and capacity needed to recruit new employees.

Another advantage can be seen in the fact that, on a health level, sick leave and general absenteeism from the workplace can also be greatly reduced through an empathetic work environment. In this way, employee absenteeism is prevented, especially during stressful phases and at critical times. Especially for those in key positions, the absence of an important employee – as a combination of health stress and the desire to change – can cause massive damage. So here, too, empathy has a direct influence on the performance of an employee and thus of the company concerned.


Self-reflection – failure analysis

Empathic skills help one to better assess one’s work environment and thus better classify future behaviors. Through general attentiveness, misunderstandings and problem situations are more quickly recognized, reduced or even avoided.

In addition, empathic thinking strengthens not only the ability to perceive others, but also to perceive oneself. Those who are able to put themselves in the shoes of others are also able to better understand their own inner selves. If we are aware of this, we can better reflect on ourselves and effectively recognize strengths.

Also in terms of weaknesses, a good self-perception in relation to productivity and success in professional life contributes to meaningful error analysis. Weaknesses can be sustainably avoided or specifically transformed into strengths without falling into destructive self-criticism.


How can empathic abilities be precisely recorded?

Empathy is one of the six dimensions taken into account and specifically analyzed in Robert S. Hartman’s value-based procedure, the Hartman Value Profile. Because it is a relative test procedure with no direct questions regarding any dimension, it is impossible for a candidate to manipulate the results in his or her own way. Thus, objective and precise results about the candidate can be obtained.

Primarily, the results provide information about how precisely a candidate can perceive his external environment (“What is around me?”) as well as his own ego (“What is going on inside me?”). This always involves an objective separation between cognitive competence (“How well are certain skills developed?”) and the respective personal preference (“Does the candidate want to use his skills?”). Here, the concrete field of application in recruitment becomes particularly clear. Just because you are theoretically good at something does not mean that you enjoy doing it on a daily basis.

The Hartman Value Profile’s assessment of empathy can be instrumental in scientifically and objectively assessing a candidate’s critical competencies in order to achieve a perfect match between company and candidate.



Empathy is a critical soft skill for a socially functioning and promising corporate culture. The psychometric scoring of empathy within the Hartman Value Profile allows for meaningful assessments of a candidate’s mindset and perception of the environment. A high potential in the area of empathy not only brings advantages in the professional world, but also trains and consolidates one’s own perception and self-reflection. It also opens up the possibility of recognizing problem situations and acting in a solution-oriented manner. Thus, it simultaneously supports the ability in the dimension of practical thinking. This will be discussed in more detail in another blog.


Author: Dimitra Sismanidou, April 2021
Copyright: IAM Global GmbH



Clark, M. A., Robertson, M. M., & Young, S. (2019). “I feel your pain”: A critical review of organizational research on empathy. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40(2), 166-192.

Sagi, A., & Hoffman, M. L. (1976). Empathic distress in the newborn. Developmental Psychology, 12(2), 175-176.

Vogel, U. (2018). Profilingvalues: Handbuch. System, Anwendungen und Interpretation des Reports. Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Profilingvalues.

Shanahan, J. (2020). Businessolver’s Fifth Annual Report on 2020 State of Workplace Empathy, Businessolver®, https://www.businessolver.com/workplace-empathy-executive-summary (Access: 9th April 2021).

Shanahan, R. (2019). The 2019 State of Workplace Empathy Study: The Competitive Edge Leaders are Missing, Businessolver®, https://blog.businessolver.com/the-2019-state-of-workplace-empathy-study-the-competitive-edge-leaders-are-missing (Access: 9th April 2021).

Gentry, W. A., Weber T. J. & Sari, G. (2016). Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership, Center for Creative Leadership®, https://cclinnovation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/empathyintheworkplace.pdf (Access: 9th April 2021).