Can’t Empathize this Enough

Fred Mael

Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO,  June  2011

There is an ingredient that can greatly improve your professional skills and your leadership effectiveness.  Despite becoming more and more rare, this ingredient remains inexpensive and accessible. It’s called empathy – the ability to see and experience things through others’ eyes, which includes sharing and caring about their emotional experiences.

Let’s jump right to your objections: “I am not my employees’ therapist. I don’t care what they are going through in their private lives, nor should I. My job is to make sure they perform, regardless of what they are going through – period”. The response – no one said you had to be their therapist, or excuse employees from work because they are mourning a romantic breakup or worrying about a sick parent (although I hope you make exceptions for the out of the ordinary emergencies and crises).  But seeing things from others’ perspective is valuable in ways that go well beyond employees’ non-work issues. Here are some of the ways:

Empathy pays

Marketing. Claude Hopkins, a pioneer in the field of advertising, said “The advertising man studies the consumer.  He tries to place himself in the position of the buyer. His success largely depends on doing that to the exclusion of everything else”. It doesn’t help to sell people what you would want or what you think they should want. You cannot know what they want unless you put yourself in their shoes and their minds and try to satisfy their needs. Focus groups and surveys are good, formalized precursors of empathy, but they don’t replace the ability to really understand how others see things at the individual level.

Negotiating.  If you need to negotiate with others and your whole approach is to demand what you want and give in only on the things that matter less to you, you will either get nowhere or hammer out an “agreement” that will foster resentment and a desire to retaliate at a later time. By contrast, if you take the time to study the other person, to learn what he or she is adamant about and what isn’t that important, you are in a position to forge an agreement that leaves everyone feeling as if they had won and/or salvaged their priorities and their pride.

Advising and mentoring.  When you give instructions and orders, it’s understood that it’s to satisfy your needs and those of the company. When you are asked for advice, someone is making themselves vulnerable to your perspective for their sake. Without empathy, you are prone to give advice that is self-referential (“when I was in that situation”), self-centered, and possibly self-serving. With empathy, you have a better chance of solving others’ issues with what is best for them.

Fading empathy

With so much potential gain tied to empathy, you would think that people would embrace it as a way to get ahead, if nothing else. Surprisingly, data shows that empathy in our culture has been in decline for quite awhile. A measure of empathy, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, has been administered to thousands of college students since 1979. Recent results analyzed by Sarah Konrath and other researchers at the University of Michigan show that 75% of current college students report themselves as less empathetic than the average college student of 30 years ago. Moreover, students’ self-reported narcissism (self-absorption) has reached new heights during the same period, as described in The Narcissism Epidemic by psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell.

Motivating employees.  Everyone who is motivated to work hard does so for a mixture of reasons and in service of certain goals. Knowing your employees’ perspectives helps you handcraft the carrots that matter to them. Just as an example, MBAs and financial personnel in companies often want cash rewards and positions of greater authority. Scientists and technicians in the same organization often want something else: Autonomy and opportunities for prestige and recognition through time for publishing and lecturing at conferences. Throwing “incentives” at employees that “should” motivate them without understanding what they value is both wasteful and futile.

Why is this happening? Konrath suggests that the drop in empathy coincides with the increase in social isolation, especially among the young. Compared to 30 years ago, Americans are more likely to live alone and less likely to join groups. Studies suggest that more socially isolated people act less generously with others.

Another potential culprit is our increasing preference for communicating through detached media and avoiding face-to face conversations.  As all communications speed up and as everyone is asked to talk in bullet points and text or write in minimal grunts, the willingness to really hear others is waning.  Unlike emails and texts, people think between sentences, repeat things, and are generally inefficient in getting to the point. If you find real people boring, you will be unable to hear them out, much less empathize with them.

In addition, reading for pleasure has gone out of style. For the first time in America, less than half of adults now read literature for pleasure, and the most noticeable drop has been among college -age adults. Psychologist Raymond Mar and others note that people who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathetic. Evidently, watching videos and soap operas cannot compare with the way readers delve into the minds of fictional book characters.

This leads to two problems. You may be having a hard time empathizing with employees, customers and others (not to mention spouses, children and relatives). Or, you may be leading and mentoring managers who can’t relate to empathizing. What are you to do?

Emphasize Empathy

Unless you are the unusual person hard-wired to be immune to others’ perspectives and feelings, you can make the effort to increase your capacity for empathy. It takes practice but you can do it. Spend some time trying to understand people who are demonstrably different from you (think of it as your own personal diversity project). Picture yourself as your customer, as  your competitor, and as your employee (or your boss).  The goal is definitely not to paralyze your ability to stick up for what you want; rather, to understand how others see things differently for reasons other than to thwart or frustrate you. Once you have mastered empathy, you can better model it to your direct reports.

And one more thing: Try reading a good book tonight.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in the June 2011 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO  and  Washington SmartCEO magazine (