You’ve probably heard someone say, “Let’s connect! I want to get to know you better.” But then they reschedule several times, and when you finally do connect, your time is spent listening to them talk to you for an hour about their own interests. Or maybe you’ve experienced a Zoom check-in where someone seems disengaged, but the conversation ends with: “OK, well let me know if there’s anything you need from me.”
Now that so many teams are dispersed and hybrid work is the new normal – particularly for those who value productivity and inclusion – virtual connections can create bonds among teams who may never meet in person. But more and more, we’re seeing these attempts go awry, or avoided entirely. What’s changed?
Our need to connect with others is largely based on benefits the brain gains from social settings. Positive social interactions trigger the release of neurochemicals in the brain, like oxytocin. These chemicals help strengthen social bonds, and create motivation to continue building trust and collaboration, providing a physiological reward state for everyone involved.
Social connections also provide a sense of belonging that can reduce feelings of threat, allowing us to remain positive when situations aren’t always ideal. Take a team meeting in which a manager is publicly berating an employee; when there is a sense of belonging, that employee may receive an outpouring of support after the incident, which reduces the threat and further strengthens the group through a shared sense of experience. What’s more, research shows being connected to others can improve our health and extend our lifespan.
While the rewards from strong social connections are significant, weak connections can be detrimental, resulting in an outcome that could be worse than if a connection never happened. A lack of relatedness can reduce our motivation, limit our desire to collaborate, and decrease productivity. It also triggers a physiological threat state in the brain, which can lead us to misunderstand each other’s intentions or cause unnecessary escalations. The impact of feeling isolated is so strong, it can be more damaging to our health than smoking.
So how effective are employees at making connections at work? Not very. According to one recent report, 44% of workers feel less connected to co-workers since the start of the pandemic. Even worse, the likelihood of feeling disconnected to a manager, coworkers, or the overall organization jumps dramatically for people under 30, and among women and non-managers — up to 200% more likely.
The missing piece in quality connections
Over the past two years, we’ve asked hundreds of executives what they needed most to lead successfully, and across the board we heard the need for empathy. But according to a 2021 survey, only one-quarter of employees think the empathy in their organization is sufficient, and seven out of 10 CEOs say it’s hard for them to demonstrate empathy at work, in large part because of a concern that doing so will make them seem weak.
Despite strong efforts and investments by organizational leaders, empathy is not increasing at work. Part of the reason may be because it turns out empathy isn’t one skill to develop. It’s actually three.
After four years of research on how to increase people’s ability to have empathy – particularly for busy, goal-focused people – we found there were several key traps that many people fall into, and through neuroscience we have found ways to address them. With an approach that targets all three components of empathy separately, we believe it can be taught much more effectively, and will accelerate the ability to make meaningful connections at work. Once you understand the different components and obstacles, there are three habits anyone can practice to be more empathetic at work, and at home.
Notice the experience of others.
The first component of empathy is what scientists call emotional, or affective empathy. You have this type of empathy when you recognize or feel the pain you see in others. Sometimes this can be so strong it can make us cry – like when watching commercials with soldiers coming home to their dogs.
But emotional empathy is difficult if you aren’t in the same ingroup as the other person. If you identify a shared goal, your brain’s activity will allow you to see the person as similar and your neurons will be more likely to signal when there’s a need for connection. Once you have shared goals, paying attention helps you notice the quiet signals. Sometimes what’s preventing us from hearing the signals of others is the noise created by our own stronger, louder thoughts. Notice those, too.
Understand the other person’s perspective.
Research shows that practicing perspective-taking, or what’s known as cognitive empathy, increases people’s confidence in their understanding by making them think they understand the other person’s experience. But as people practice perspective-taking more and more, they think they’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes. In reality, they get better at understanding someone else’s situation from an outsider’s perspective, but that doesn’t mean they’re more accurate in their abilities —a trap known as “perspective mistaking.” The way around this trap is to try to understand perspectives based on intuition alone. You can do this by asking more questions and inviting people to share their experiences, rather than relying on inaccurate assumptions.
Act with compassion.
The final part of empathy is what’s known as behavioral empathy, or the ability to act on your intentions. The tangle with this kind of empathy is that we often don’t make it easy for others to accept support. For example, if you notice someone is experiencing a troubled emotion, a default response might be: “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” That seems to come from a place of genuine concern, but when someone is already in survival-mode, adding to their cognitive load by giving them homework translates to: “Think about it and get back to me by telling me specifically what you want me to do,” adding insult to injury. Such efforts to connect, particularly without taking other people’s needs into consideration, can actually undo all the hard work your organization is doing to build and maintain a positive workplace.
A better approach is to offer that person a choice in ways to accept help. For instance: “You mentioned feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list. Would it be helpful if I finished that report for you, or if I rescheduled our meeting for next week?” This can create high-quality connections that regenerate one another, the organization, and extended ecosystems.
Strong connections made with the help of empathy build cultures where people bring their best effort, want to show up for work every day, and bring in others to join them. To increase relatedness and build an inclusive culture of psychological safety, the habits of quality connections must be practiced daily. One way to develop the skills to build quality connections is to deploy an if-then technique. That might look something like: If I catch myself saying “how can I help” then I will reframe my phrase in a question with three options that could be helpful in this moment.
Offering someone a choice of ways to accept help doesn’t just ease their cognitive burden, making it easier for them to receive support. It also preserves their autonomy—which we know from research is a powerful tool. When employees are starving for connection, serving it with a side-order of autonomy is the most nourishing dish of all.
This article originally appeared in Psychology Today.