Thursday, October 5, 2017

Creating or Nurturing a Positive Culture: Being Helpful and Showing Empathy

By Scott E. Friedman, Andrea H. HusVar, and Eliza P. Friedman

This week, as we continue our discussion of “Stage 4 Planning” and the benefits of positive psychology on family business dynamics, we’re examining two more ways in which to create a positive culture in the workplace.

So far we’ve identified three proven strategies, including (1) fostering social connections, (2) “promoting psychological safety,” and (3) practicing gratitude. Today, we’re adding (4) being helpful and (5) showing empathy.

Being Helpful

“Studies show that individuals who share with others in a group—for example, by contributing new ideas or directly assisting on projects not their own—are deemed more worthy of respect and influence and more suitable for leadership,” says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, and the faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center. “Mike Norton at Harvard Business School has found that when organizations provide an opportunity to donate to charities at work, employees feel more satisfied and productive.”[1]

Showing Empathy

New studies in neuroscience have demonstrated the importance of empathy in the workplace. For example, researchers found through brain-imaging studies that “when employees recalled a boss that had been unkind or un-empathic, they showed increased activation in areas of the brain associated with avoidance and negative emotion,” while, by contrast, empathetic bosses fostered a sense of collegiality and good will.[2]

Such findings have great relevance to anyone and any organization, including family businesses where insensitivity to family members and others, perhaps particularly by family members in positions of power, can generate ill will by rude and selfish behavior, such as by interrupting coworkers, multitasking during meetings, raising their voices, and insulting colleagues. There are, of course, countless ways to incorporate empathy in a family business, such as simply listening with focused interest and engagement, signaling concern with phrases such as “I’m sorry,” or, before meetings, taking a moment to ask the person you’ll be with what’s new.[3]

Next week on the blog we’ll be focusing on “demonstrating compassion” and “showing forgiveness”—two more proven strategies that can help lead to a positive work culture. 

[1] Dacher Keltner, Don’t Let Power Corrupt You, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Oct. 2016),

[2] Emma Seppala & Kim Cameron, Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Dec. 1, 2015),

[3] Dacher Keltner, Don’t Let Power Corrupt You, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Oct. 2016),

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