Earlier today, we discussed why emotional intelligence is critical for leaders to develop solid relationships with people and how that leads to engagement. We also addressed the impact of emotional contagion and noted that the ability to manage emotions was probably the surest way for a good leader to become great. In this hour, we will explore empathy, the one emotional competency that is essential for outstanding leaders.
Let’s circle back to the question I asked at the beginning. Namely, when it comes to employee engagement, if I could choose just one emotion to improve employee engagement, which one should I choose?
For me the one that comes closest to being a silver bullet is empathy. If we could see through the eyes of another, feel what they are feeling, we would have great insight into how best to lead them.
Empathy has a reputation of being fuzzy and soft. In fact it has been reported that empathy is in decline, particularly among college graduates. We live in a culture that discourages empathy and presents a goal to all of us that we should be young, attractive, slim and rich.
I am here to tell you that other than being young, attractive, slim and rich I am doing just fine by that measure.
We grow into empathy. When a baby cries in a hospital nursery, they all start to cry because they identify the pain. It is not until about age 2, however, that a baby realizes it is a separate individual. At that age, if a baby cries, another may try to comfort it.
At about age 8, children learn about birth and death and they go through this sort of existential metamorphosis where they learn that we have only one life, it is short and every moment is precious. We begin to feel for one another because we have this knowledge of birth and death. So it is very natural for us to want to be connected.
Empathy can be difficult to learn because our own biases and some cultural biases may stand in the way. We are often subject to our own blind spots and assumptions we make about other people. We can be blocked from learning empathy too because, as this quote says, we have never really looked into our own emotional makeup and learned the emotions that are triggered within ourselves or the patterns of emotions that surface when different situations occur. The experts call this level of understanding emotional literacy. There are other obstacles as well.
If empathy is so good for us and we are deep wired to connect on an emotional level, why don’t we do it more. The reason is that we face four fundamental barriers that block the full expression of empathy. These are prejudice, authority, distance and denial.
All of us have prejudices of some sort. We may think that Wall Street bankers are arrogant, or that coal minors are uneducated. We may instinctively flinch or walk faster when we see a homeless person.
Oskar Schindler was a hard drinking, womanizing business man in Germany who was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. He routinely bribed German soldiers so he could hire Jewish workers for his manufacturing plant – the Jews were a source of cheap labor.
It wasn’t until he got to know several of his employees as people with names and children and hopes and desires that his prejudice softened. He had to remove the stereotype of Jews as just cheap labor and replace it with Jews are human beings before he was able to be empathetic toward their plight.
Ultimately he was responsible for smuggling 1100 of his employees out of Germany in order for them to evade the death camps. It was those 1100 who comprised Schindler’s list and whose story was told in Stephen Spielberg’s film of the same name.
Aside from prejudice, one of the greatest obstacles to empathy is the human tendency to obey authority.
One of the better known examples of this was Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the holocaust. Eichmann claimed at his trial that he was not responsible for his actions because he was just doing his duty. Hannah Arendt, a psychologist who studied Eichmann, said that the terrifying thing about Eichmann was that he was not a sadist and in fact, was terribly normal. The sad thing, she added, is that there were so many like him.
In this country, Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist, wanted to find out if Nazi Germany was an exception. He devised an experiment to study the effects of punishment on learning. Each participant acting as the teacher was asked to read out pairs of words like strong arm or black curtain. If the learner made a mistake in repeating the pairs of words, the teacher was instructed to administer a shock. With each wrong answer, the shock was ratcheted up a notch. If the teacher hesitated in administering the shock, the experimenter would say that they must keep going – that it was important that the experiment be conducted.
65% kept going even when the learner cried out in pain.
This is my deck after a storm went through our yard on Sunday night. My neighbor has a similar size tree leaning against his house so it is easy to empathize. But the further we get from someone or something, the harder it is to empathize.
But think for a moment about Crimea and its sudden annexation by Russia from the Ukraine. When we do not know people – when their lives are far away and unfamiliar, it is more difficult to feel empathy. While technically we should feel some moral concern, the reality is that distance lessens our concern.
How often have we looked at a starving child or children who had been victims of war or some natural disaster and had little emotional response? Psychologists call this phenomenon compassion fatigue.
A deeper explanation is that we unconsciously block them out. Sociologist Stanley Cohen calls this a culture of denial in which we know but don’t know because the information may make us feel responsible or guilty.
I think one of the reasons that empathy has declined is because managers are afraid to get to know their employees out of a fear that they might have to let them go. In the last 20-30 years, layoffs have become a routine phenomenon. It is far easier to think of employees as nameless, faceless bodies when you are facing the prospect of letting people go. After all, thinking of an employee as a person with a family to support just might produce too much anxiety and guilt.
Empathy withers and dies when we do not acknowledge the humanity of another human being – when we do not see them as a unique individual. But what does it really mean to treat someone as a unique human being?
We can get a clue from Oskar Schindler. In the beginning, he had no qualms about using free Jewish labor whose wage was paid to the SS because he saw them as an anonymous mass. Getting to know them started with his accountant, Itzhak Stern. Through their daily conversations, Oskar found out about Stern’s life in the Krakow ghetto – the starvation and fear – random shootings by German soldiers.
Schindler also witnessed people being hauled out of their homes and loaded into box cars – some shot at point blank range – and he vowed he would not treat people cruelly and would do everything in his power to beat the system.
When asked to explain his actions, Schindler said simply that when you know people, you have to treat them like human beings.
I believe that is the deceptively simple answer to employee engagement – you have to know the people who work for you. Empathy begins by looking someone in the eyes, giving them a name and recognizing them as a unique individual. In doing so you build a stronger, deeper relationship.
Martin Buber, an Australian theologian and philosopher has written that there are two types of relationships – I-It where we treat the other person as an object and I-Thou when we treat each person as a unique individual and we try to see the world through their eyes. We can only have genuine conversations when we are in the I – Thou mode and make an effort to imagine their reality.
Here is another exercise to develop empathy. There is a Buddhist practice of mindfulness where you try to imagine every person who has anything to do with the routine parts of your day. Beginning with when you wake up, you consider the people who made the sheets on your bed. At breakfast, you imagine the farmer that grew the beans for your coffee. On your way to work, you imagine the people who build and maintain the roads or who built your car. Consider this exercise throughout the day. It is a way of deepening human moral concern.
Switch on your empathic brain. Make an effort to view life through the eyes of other people.
Make the imaginative leap; a conscious effort to walk in another person’s shoes and see their reality.
Seek experiential adventures by exploring lives and cultures that are different from your own.
Practice the craft of conversation by fostering curiosity about strangers. One of the better known conversationalists was the author Studs Terkel who turned his love of conversations into several books.
Travel in your armchair though books, movies and travel programs.
Inspire a revolution by extending your empathic skills to embrace the entire planet.
Most people want to believe that their life matters in some way. One way to get that affirmation is to be listened to and heard in a way that generates mutual respect. I believe that if we teach emotional intelligence skills and particularly empathy to managers and supervisors it will go a long way toward reducing the alienation in the work place that is so often present. It may mean putting away with our technology and gadgets and engaging in a deep conversation with someone. It may mean a return to the ways of business in a long forgotten time.
My father worked for James Cash Penney, the founder of the J.C. Penney Company and whose initial store was called the Golden Rule Store. Being empathetic means that we need to return not just to the Golden Rule, “Treat others like you would like to be treated”, but rather to the Platinum Rule – Treat everyone the way they would like to be treated.”
Effective LeadersPractice Empathy
Joel H Head
If I could choose just one emotion to
improve employee engagement, which
one should I choose?
In search of the Silver Bullet…
Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively
into the shoes of another person,
understanding their feelings and
perspectives, and using that understanding to
guide your actions.
~ Roman Krznaric
“It is surprising how many persons go through life without
ever recognizing their own feelings toward other people are
largely determined by their feelings toward themselves, and
if you’re not comfortable within yourself, you can’t be
comfortable with others.”
Sydney J. Harris
Obstacles to Being Empathic
Six Habits of Empathic People
1. Switch on your empathic brain.
2. Make the imaginative leap
3. Seek experiential adventures.
4. Practice the craft of conversation.
5. Travel in your armchair.
6. Inspire a revolution.
Triggering Your Muse
• Pair up with someone.
• Rekindle your childhood curiosity.
• Listen for the feelings behind each statement.
• Take turns discussing (5 minutes each):
“What has been the most
surprising and stimulating
conversation you have ever had
with a stranger?”
What do people want most?
“To be listened to, and to be
heard, in the briefest period
of time, with the greatest
accuracy, and in a manner
that generates mutual
respect and trust.”