Don’t be ‘nice’ to your coworker — It can backfire

Do you think that being nice and showing empathy at work is generally good? Most probably do. But, a new study has found that showing empathy toward certain coworkers can backfire. 

Though many people believe showing empathy to be a positive virtue, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that empathetic people are not necessarily viewed favorably. In fact, showing empathy in some situations could reflect poorly on the empathizer.  

People’s views on empathy are more complicated than we probably imagine, and your company’s policies might be caught in the crosshairs. 

Empathy isn’t always a positive thing

The research included over 3,000 participants from all over the United States. Participants were placed in situational studies that measured the participant’s reaction to the responder in different social and professional scenarios.

One scenario had participants share the same experience and react to one another. Some scenarios included conflicts, like work stress or a responder that was not well-liked. And other scenarios were more positive with a responder who was well-liked, such as a children’s hospital worker. In each scenario, the study’s researchers recorded the participant’s reactions to how the responder treated them based on how well-liked the responder was.  

The study found that people’s impressions of empathy heavily depended on who was receiving empathy. 

“People don’t necessarily like or respect those who show empathy toward morally questionable individuals,” said Y. Andre Wang, lead author of the study. In other words, people generally support the empathizer provided the person receiving the empathy was well-liked. 

In some situations (like one that included a “white supremacist”), participants of the study favored condemnation of the responder rather than empathy. 

“People are often encouraged to empathize with disliked others, but our findings suggest that they are not always viewed favorably for doing so,” the research found. 

“Overall, empathizers were viewed as warmer, but to a lesser extent when responding to a negative target.”

More empathy is not always better

These findings show that the common assumption that “more empathy is always better” is not necessarily the case. Situational awareness will heavily influence how empathy is viewed and accepted in the workplace. 

In fact, showing empathy may be a pointed social signal about how people perceive the person doing the empathizing – in both positive as well as negative ways. 

If you empathize with morally questionable people, it might reflect poorly on you or be misconstrued as your support of the questionable activity, and this is especially true for those in a management position. 

A one-size-fits-all approach toward empathy could backfire, implying the organization (or manager) supports poor work performance or morally questionable activities or lifestyles when empathy is the required standard reaction.

Workplace policies toward empathy are more complex than we might think. This study suggests that blanket “empathy is best” policies may not tell the whole story.

Organizations should be sensitive to how empathy is perceived in the workplace and take proactive steps to ensure empathy does not get interpreted as acceptance of poor performance.