Illustration by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

Is the pandemic making us more empathetic?

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Published on September 24, 2020

Illustration by Fanny Luor

You may not have noticed, but people have been spending a lot of time inside lately—both literally in their homes and figuratively in their heads. With COVID-19, many of the distractions and activities that helped create a sense of structured normalcy in our lives are gone, leaving only time for introspection and anxiety.

That’s exactly what a Thrive Global study conducted in April found: 80% of American adults felt “helpless and that things are out of their control.” Additionally, over 85% of those respondents said that they wanted more help from their employers as they adapted to working remotely.

Once again, we’re in the middle of a sea change in not only how we physically conduct work, but how we treat each other while we do it. We’re becoming more empathetic—not just because we need to, but because it feels right. 

But let’s back up: What does empathy look like, and why has it been strangely divorced from job performance up until now?

EQ, IQ, and you

To save ourselves a crash course in pop psychology and post-industrialization workplace culture, here’s the short version: Modern offices have valued a worker’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ) over their Emotional Quotient (EQ) until very recently. The term “Emotional Intelligence” has bounced around public awareness for the last half-century, but it truly became unavoidable when Daniel Goleman published Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ in 1995. The book has been a bestseller ever since, and the term has been debated and slowly integrated into workplace culture for the last 25 years.

Still, the concept of IQ has maintained cultural dominance since its invention. Anyone rattling off their IQ score at a party is essentially proving how smart (and obnoxious) they are. Although the flaws in IQ testing have been established at length, the core idea—that smart people can find smart solutions to challenges at work, and therefore produce superior results—has shaped multiple generations of thought when it comes to workplace leadership.

If you’ve ever heard someone say “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” you already understand the not-so-secret attitudes that modern workplaces have had towards anything emotional: Keep your feelings at home and do the job. But now in 2020, home is where the job is for many of us. The (let’s face it, imaginary) dividing line between someone’s personal life—where families, relationships, and mental health reign supreme—has been blurred into obscurity. This is where EQ comes into play.

In a 1995 interview, Goleman said the following about EQ: "If your emotional abilities aren't in hand, if you don't have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far."

It’s no huge stretch to understand why those skills are vital in every field, on every level: The common denominator across every job is other people, and EQ/EI is about having the skills to work well with others. Whether you’re leading a team remotely or a freelancer courting new clients, there’s no situation where being able to express and act on empathy won’t make everyone’s life a little easier. And the numbers don’t lie: studies have found that a high EQ accounts for 90% of what sets high-performing individuals apart from equally-skilled peers.

As you probably know, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It’s different from sympathy, which comes from shared experience. In a way, empathy is a lot like engaging in creative thought exercises; the more you can literally try to imagine what life is like for another person, the better you’ll be at articulating their current emotional challenges. It’s no surprise that studies have found that reading fiction improves your ability to build empathy; fiction is all about feeling for people different from yourself!

These days, team leaders are no longer just valued for their ability to promote productivity in the workers around them—with so many of us embracing distributed work, we’re mostly responsible for our own productivity anyway—but for their skill handling intangibles like anxiety, stress, or ongoing, unfixable personal issues. Leaders with high EQ are adept in these moments; they understand that their team members want to be treated like human beings going through a hard time.

Like all skills, EQ can be trained, and the human-unfriendly idea that most leaders need “high” IQ can be unlearned. That’s great news, because the benefits of an EQ-friendly workplace have never been clearer.

What empathy looks like in a pandemic

Mark Cuban didn’t mince words when he spoke to WBUR/NPR this past April about which companies would fail during the Covid-19 crisis.

“How you treat your employees today will have more impact on your brand in future years than any amount of advertising, any amount of anything you literally could do. Because, again, we're all suffering from this. Every single person is looking to see how their company is treating them, how their employers are treating family members and friends.”

To put it even more eloquently (through the words of Maya Angelou): “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” To many, this type of interaction comes naturally, but others may be shocked at how high-EQ interactions fly in the face of conventional results-based workplace conduct. While a culture of empathy can absolutely be modeled top-down from leadership, it can just as easily spread laterally through co-workers and anyone with the ability to communicate in a certain way.

"Every single person is looking to see how their company is treating them, how their employers are treating family members and friends."

Psychology Today identifies Emotional Intelligence (and by extension, having a high EQ) by the presence of at least three traits.

  • The ability to accurately identify your own emotions, as well as those of others
  • The ability to utilize emotions and apply them to tasks, like thinking and problem-solving
  • The ability to manage emotions, including controlling your own, as well as the ability to cheer up or calm down another person

There’s a very good chance you’ve started to demonstrate those skills yourself, intentionally or otherwise. WIRED wrote in March about our rapid change in email etiquette, and if you haven’t sent an email that opens with some version of “Hoping you’re well and healthy,” you’ve certainly received one. It’s a small change but indicative of the broad cultural shift we’ve silently adopted in our interactions: injecting actual care and an acknowledgment of the human being behind the screen into each outbound message.

It cannot be overstated how universally applicable these skills are. The ongoing global sea change of the Covid-19 crisis means that there is no return to normal in sight; a failure to recognize the emotional needs of the people you’re working with can’t just be shrugged off over a weekend. 

Morale is a very real problem, and ongoing (or incoming) crashes among grocery workers and health care professionals can offer a sobering look into what happens when people feel like they’re not heard, seen, or cared for during a pandemic.

On the other hand, when people make an effort to hear, see, and care for their colleagues, studies have found that everyone around them benefits.

Light up a room (or a Zoom)

You don’t have to be a “Leader” to lead, and high-EQ people know that implicitly. The difference between teams that are staying above water and those that are drowning could very well be a healthy seasoning of workers acting with empathy towards the people around them. Things can feel gloomy right now, and a simple caring act can be a ray of light cutting through someone’s cloudy day.

Laura K. Murphy, a clinical psychologist and scientist at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, writes about the ways you can look internally and externally to be one of those rays of lights for the people around you. Most importantly, she breaks sometimes obscure terms down into direct, actionable steps you can start taking today.

It’s easy to tell someone to “practice empathy,” for instance. But Murphy says that in reality, that action takes place across three steps: Mental Awareness (imagining you are the other person), Communication (what you say, how you say it), and a Physical Aspect (reading someone’s body language if you’re in person, or noting their gestures and tone over video chat).

A workplace that historically focused on IQ-heavy performance would often reward quick, decisive action that leads to positive results. But if they emphasized EQ, things would look considerably different, and every interaction between workers would be transformed. If you needed a task done quickly from a coworker behind on a deadline, you might keep in mind that they’re working from home with two kids (Mental Awareness), soften the tone of your request (Communication), and keep a keen eye on their body language in your next video chat (Physical Aspect). The process can seem counterintuitive to a results-oriented person, but keep this in mind: Nothing makes results suffer more than a team with low morale.

Murphy also points out that a huge part of empathy comes from improving your relationship with your own feelings, too. Spend time on your own self-awareness (how can you know how other people’s feelings work if you don’t understand your own?), label your fear (direct and honest language around problems and concerns is more reassuring than vague jargon), be real (self-explanatory), and take care of yourself (ditto).

Depending on your own levels of empathy, all this could either seem obvious or daunting. But to borrow another well-worn saying: “It’s about direction, not perfection.” If you keep points like Murphy’s in mind (or similarly helpful resources like the ones found at Brookings or from this Career Management Coach), you’ll still be doing what counts most—trying to break up those clouds and connect with a human being on the other side of the screen.

It’s hard to say whether the Covid-19 crisis has made us more empathetic in the long-term. But what’s undeniable is this: 2020 has revealed the importance and strength of empathy in our day-to-day interactions. That impact has always been true, but each new day serves as a case study on how the manner in which we treat each other matters. Maybe now we can finally put the EQ debate to rest and move towards workplace communication that makes everyone feel better on every level.