So You Think You Can Empathize?

Empathy has been defined as “The ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions.”  –  (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Empathy plays at least two important functions in the work place. At the level of interpersonal relations, it can have a significant impact on improving employee morale. And, more broadly, when empathy is used in articulating an organizational vision, it can inspire an entire work force.

Recently a senior manager, commenting on her family-friendly place of employment, said of her boss:

“She was very responsive to my needs when I most needed her support. Recently I had surgery and she told me to take all the time I needed; she wanted me to be fully well before I returned to working long hours again. When she said that, I was so relieved; the funny thing is, I soon found myself longing to go back to work! In my former place of employment you could be the walking dead and they would pressure you not to take time off.”

An employer who lacks empathy can swiftly demoralize employees when he or she responds by being insensitive or unsupportive to employee needs.

But when a leader shows empathy in a situation that clearly deserves it, as in the previous example, a boss’s action can have a very positive impact on an employee’s ultimate commitment. Through her action, the boss in our example communicated that she understood that her employee was not going to be her most productive until she was well. Likewise, by showing she respected her employee’s situation and cared about her as a person, following the employee’s recovery, this executive could expect a similar positive regard and consideration in the boss’ time of need; perhaps, for example, when she needed the employee’s loyalty or extended hours to complete a project.

One of the foundations of an inspired workforce is having its leaders behaving empathically toward their employees. Without it, leaders are hobbled in their efforts to inspire. Daniel Goleman (2002), recognizing the connection between empathy and inspiration, wrote:

“Of all the EI [emotional intelligence] competencies …… empathy matters most to visionary leadership. The ability to sense how others feel and to understand their perspectives means that a leader can articulate a truly inspirational vision. A leader who misreads people, on the other hand, simply can’t inspire them.”

When leaders use their understanding of others to connect their organizational vision to their employees’ values and aspirations, employees will be inspired to follow them.

Some leaders seem to have a natural gift for empathy while others need to learn it. Because empathy is mediated via a part of our brain that processes emotions, it cannot be learned in the traditional classroom manner that concepts, for example, are learned.

Rather, as Goleman (2002) has discussed, one learns empathy by observing others who do it well, followed by practicing those behaviors, and then changing or fine-tuning one’s behavior based on feedback from others. With practice, the empathic behaviors that initially may be expressed in a self-conscious or mimicking manner become internalized. Once internalized, empathy can be expressed more naturally and effectively.

How to Practice Empathy Skills

To become more empathic leaders, we first need to identify the important empathic behaviors that are needed in our businesses and decide which of these behaviors we need to develop in order to be more effective and inspirational in our jobs.

So you think you can empathize? Then check yourself against the following descriptions of empathic behavior.

  • The ability to listen, assimilate and respond to another’s perspective.
  • A willingness to be open or receptive to the experiences, values, and perspectives of another even when these perspectives are unfamiliar or different from one’s own experiences and values.
  • The capacity to enter into an interaction with another without preconceived assumptions about that person. That is, to regard another with positive regard and in a nonjudgmental way.
  • The ability to understand and engage another about their feelings, desires, motivations, and ideas. In other words, to “stand in another’s shoes.”

Once we have identified the empathic behaviors we want to develop, we need to practice using these skills. The next blog posting will give you a step-by-step process that will help improve your capacity for empathy at work.

This posting is based on the book “What Inspirational Leaders Do”  (Kindle 2008) written with Kristine S. MacKain, Ph.D.

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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