Behind the Executive Door

Where personality meets leadership.

Running On Empathy

For business leaders: a prescription for empathy

Running On Empathy
Have you noticed the seeming glut of books in the last couple of years focused on the topic of empathy? To name just a few, there’s Wharton Professor Jeremy Rifkin’s tome entitled, The Empathic Civilization, The Power of Empathy by Arthur P. Ciaramicole, and The Science of Evil:  6 Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen. In their respective ways, I think all of these books are getting at the same thing: that our capacity for empathy is a resource of limitless potential in a world that may need it now more than ever.

From the dictionary, empathy is defined as the identification with and understanding of another’s situation as in If I put myself in your shoes, I can understand how angry you must be about not getting that promotion. Empathy is distinguished from sympathy which is defined as the ability to share the feelings of another as in I am so sorry about the death of your co-worker.

Through the lens of psychology—specifically, the construct of emotional intelligence (EQ)—empathy is embedded in the EQ dimension of attunement to others. In the context of workand workplace leaders, many researchers and consulting psychologists have stressed the importance of leaders being attuned to the people whom they are leading. Daniel Goleman wrote of the power of emotional resonance in the book Primal Leadership. In his words, “The fundamental task of leaders is to prime good feeling in those they lead. That occurs when a leader creates resonance—a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people. At its root, then, the primary job of leadership is emotional.”

Given the combined competitive, economic, and global forces at play in this current business climate, it’s no accident that many thought leaders are writing about empathy. Leaders must convey their understanding of the daily stressors of their global partners, as well as of their employees. And they must remain sufficiently attuned to others to calm a growing level of fear and anxiety as elicited by various geopolitical forces. In other words, the practice of empathic resonance has become a leadership asset that distinguishes stellar leaders from the rest. It is the attuned leader who will more quickly be able to manage chaos and meet people where they need to be met so that productive commerce can proceed with minimal disruption.

Perhaps the most fascinating book on the topic of empathy that crossed my desk recently is entitled Empathy in Patient Care by clinical psychologist, Mohammadreza Hojat. Hojat, on the staff of Thomas Jefferson Medical College, developed what is known as the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (JSPE). Like a lot of brilliant leaders, many technically gifted physicians get low grades for their empathic engagement with patients, and Hojat is trying to change this.

Taking some cues from the JSPE, here’s my adaptation for business leaders:

10 TIPS FOR LEADERS’ EMPATHY

  • I believe that emotion holds an important place in the quality of people’s work and their work-related relationships.
  • My colleagues and direct reports will feel better when I make an effort to understand their feelings especially as related to their career aspirations.
  • It is important for me to try to view things from others’ perspectives.
  • My attunement to people’s different cultural experiences can have a positive influence on our work relationships.
  • I think the body language of others at work can often tell me as much—if not more—than what they say.
  • I have a good sense of humor and try to use this to establish close rapport with people at work.
  • I often try to imagine myself in the shoes of my direct reports especially when setting challenging objectives.
  • Asking people about what’s going on in their personal lives can help me understand their reactions at work—especially when things may not be going so well.
  • I will be more effective as a leader if my relationships with people at work are not just transactional (I need you to do this now). In other words, I value making a genuine effort to establish personal rapport with others.
  • I believe that having empathic resonance with others is a key leadership asset and I strive to develop this.

Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn is a licensed psychologist, executive consultant and author of Behind The Executive Door: Unexpected Lessons for Managing Your Boss and Career.

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