Empathy has been proven to increase sales, improve retention, raise engagement scores, promote innovation, and increase trust, and is considered “the most important skill for leaders.” In spite of the overwhelming evidence of the importance of empathy in organizational success and individuals’ feelings of belonging, there are very few organizations that have talent development programs aimed at Building Empathy Competence.
Leadership guru Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk on Empathy has drawn more than 2.5 million viewers. Sinek defines empathy as “the ability to recognize and share other people’s feelings.” An enhanced definition that I use is “an intentional or unintentional ability to see, feel, and understand the perspective of another person and, if appropriate, to act compassionately based on these insights.”
Empathy should not be confused with pity or sympathy, which are more detached. Pity is the acknowledgement of someone’s situation; sympathy is an expression of caring. Sympathy is typified by the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would want to be treated. Empathy is typified by the Platinum Rule: Treat others the way they want to be treated.
The Benefits of Empathy
Sinek believes that empathy is the #1 trait in a leaders’ tool kit. Leaders who are empathetic will ask why someone is underperforming and then ask if there is something they can do. Non-empathetic leaders will point out that someone is underperforming. As our workplaces become more digital, automated, and virtual, the need for “empathy acumen” will increase.
Salespeople who employ empathy are more successful. They practice active listing, curiosity, and patience, and they look for solutions that best meet their clients’ concerns. They do not approach a client with a fixed solution.
Empathy boosts team collaboration and morale. Empathetic companies have higher retention, improved morale, more effective teamwork, improved productivity, and innovation. A lack of empathy is associated with dysfunctional teams, missed deadlines, and decreased productivity. In an employee study at Google called “Operation Aristotle,” Google found that those with high empathy were more productive and created more successful, innovative products than those who scored high in traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematical) skills.
Can You Teach Empathy?
Empathy is both an inherent personality characteristic and a skill that can be taught and learned. Think of a narcissistic leader and an empathetic leader. Who would you prefer to work with? Why did one become narcissistic and one empathetic? Are these personality traits? Can they be changed through training and development? Fortunately, there are excellent talent development training programs that promote empathy at work.
Training for empathy should include opportunities for participants to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” This can be accomplished through role-plays or simulations like the much noted experiment by Jane Elliot in A Class Divided or in simulations such as Star Power by Gary Shirts. Empathy training also can be enhanced by discussing actual business cases and evaluating them from different perspectives. Storytelling and guided Critical Conversations (see my article in the September/October 2020 issue of Training magazine) also can help to build a more empathetic workplace. These activities will not have a lasting impact unless everyone—especially the executive team on down—learns to actively model empathetic behaviors while remaining open to discussion about their behaviors that inhibit empathy.
Programs that teach empathy should point out that stress and limited resources inhibit empathetic understanding. Under stress, we focus more on our immediate needs as opposed to the concerns of others.
The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has had us virtually entering the homes of our co-workers and realizing that some may have a separate home office with childcare for children, while others may work from their kitchen table with children interrupting their parent for attention. Empathy is needed by all in such circumstances.
We all want to feel welcomed and that we belong. Does this mean a good leader must have the insights of a therapist? No, just a simple open and compassionate attitude toward their employees can make a great deal of difference.
Training programs that promote empathy can be delivered virtually and in-person and can vary in the number of participants and program length. Please write to me if you have any questions, experiences, best practices, or roadblocks in your journey to promote empathy at your workplace at: firstname.lastname@example.org