Empathy at Work: A Little Goes a Long Way

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Trillion Dollar Coach" by Bill Campbell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the importance of empathy at work? How does it impact workplace relationships?

Empathy at work can allow teams to be more effective and joyful. According to Bill Campbell, it can break down the walls between the human persona and the professional persona.

Read on for more about the importance of empathy at work.

Principles of Empathy at Work

Bill Campbell believed that the workplace becomes more joyful and teams become more effective when leaders break down the walls between the human persona and the professional persona. These principles that can help encourage empathy at work: 

Do Favors for Others

The principle: Be generous with your time, money, and connections. Campbell was fond of doing favors for others. If he could pull a few strings, he would. Businessman Adam Rifkin calls this kind of generosity the “five-minute favor,” as detailed in Adam Grant’s book Give and Take. Five-minute favors require very little of the giver but mean an awful lot to the recipient. They show empathy at work.

(Shortform note: To learn more about the benefits of doing five-minute favors, read our summary of Adam Grant’s Give and Take.)

But most of us think of favors differently depending on who the recipient is. A favor for your best friend? Of course you’d do that. But a favor for a colleague at work? Well, you might need to see if it’s okay with your boss, or what the human resources department thinks about it. What if other employees think you’re doling out special treatment? That’s not fair to everybody, right? And so on. 

Campbell would say, just do the favor—regardless of company protocol. 

Practice Your People Skills 

The principle: Caring for your colleagues takes practice. As noted earlier, Campbell was an extrovert who loved people, but not every team leader or manager is wired this way. If you’re an introvert, you’ll need a lot of practice to develop the level of “people skills” that Campbell was famous for. It may not seem natural at first, but these skills can be learned. Start with small steps: Take a moment to stop and chat with people in the hallway, elevator, or cafeteria. Ask simple, open-ended questions, like “How’s that project going?” or “What are you working on?” 

Don’t underestimate the significance of small exchanges, like making eye contact when you walk in the office and genuinely asking a coworker how her day is going. Daily interactions build relationships, which make up the fabric of a company’s culture. These are important for cultivating empathy at work over time.

Connect People to Each Other

The principle: Don’t just build teams at work, build community. Campbell was obviously an extrovert who loved people, but he was also a strategist. His goal: to build community. He believed there was power in making long-lasting connections between people both inside and outside of the workplace. 

Supporting research: Sociologists call this “creating social capital.” By creating strong emotional bonds between people, a community, institution, or company automatically becomes much stronger.  

Example: Campbell formed a Super Bowl group, a bunch of friends who would travel together to attend the Super Bowl each year, wherever it was held. Occasionally someone would have to cancel at the last minute and he would wind up with extra tickets. He would always give them away to strangers. Campbell’s Super Bowl gatherings mattered so much to him that when he was dying, he created an endowment to keep the trips going. He did the same with other trips he and his friends took each year—a golf trip to Cabo San Lucas, a fishing trip to Montana. He was famous for picking up the tab for both large and small events. He even invested his money in an aging sports bar in Palo Alto, which became a popular Friday afternoon hangout for anybody who walked in. Campbell often paid the bar bill for friends and strangers alike. 

Support People Even When They Leave 

The principle: The team should be a team for life. The highest achievers often feel the loneliest. By being in a position of power, high achievers often feel a sense of separation from others. They may have a big ego from all their successes and achievements, but that is often coupled with big insecurities and fears. They may want to feel appreciated, but there’s no one higher up in the company to thank them for their efforts. They don’t always know if people want to be their friends because of their position or because they are genuinely loved. When it’s time to retire or step away from their positions, they grapple with loss and uncertainty. 

Example: In 2017, Eric Schmidt announced he was stepping down from the board of Google. Campbell was no longer alive to be his coach and mentor, and his teammates at Google feared that he would struggle with the transition to a new life outside of Google (after 19 years with the company—first as CEO, later as chairman of the board, and still later as board member). So they rallied around him to help create a plan for the next stage in his career. Schmidt didn’t make his final exit until 2020, but his team made sure he didn’t walk that road alone. 

Exercise: Assess Empathy at Work

Empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person—is a crucial element of being able to connect with the people in our lives, whether they are spouses, friends, or coworkers. Most of us would say we are “good” at being empathetic, but we rarely pause to analyze our empathic abilities. 

  • Describe the last time you went out of your way to connect with another person, to see things from their perspective (especially if it clashes with yours). What did you do or say, and what were the results of your actions? 
  • Are there people in your life or workplace with whom you can’t seem to connect, whose point of view doesn’t make sense to you? If so, can you think of three possible conversation starters to help bridge the empathy gap between you? 
Empathy at Work: A Little Goes a Long Way

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Bill Campbell's "Trillion Dollar Coach" at Shortform.

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  • How Bill Campbell went from football coach to tech coach
  • The 4 pillars of Campbell's leadership philosophy
  • How the King Arthur Round Table model for making decisions empowers employees

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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