One of the best things a company can do to gain viability is to include empathy as part of their corporate culture. In fact, in Ernest J. Wilson III’s study it is the most important attribute executives must have to succeed in today’s digital, global economy.
To understand the importance of empathy in your organization, it’s first important to understand exactly what empathy is and how it differs from sympathy as they frequently get used synonymously when they shouldn’t. Sympathy is acknowledging that someone is going through a tough time and feeling sorrow or pity for the hardships that person encounters. Picture a friend that was recently let go at work – someone showing sympathy may say ‘You poor thing, I’m sorry to hear about your situation”. Empathy, on the other hand, requires people to put themselves in a vulnerable position by putting themselves in the shoes of another and seeing the situation from their perspective. Someone showing empathy to the same friend might say “This is a difficult time for you, I know how much your family depends on your income and how much pride you took in your work. I’m here to help you get through this”. Brené Brown simplifies it by saying that sympathy drives disconnection and empathy drives connection.
Today, more than ever, everything we do is connected and networked together, so having empathy as a connector to our networks makes sense. As we begin to understand more about the power of empathy we realize that it isn’t a warm and fuzzy ‘soft skill’ where everyone is holding hands signing Kumbaya but that it correlates to growth, productivity and earnings per employee. Empathy also stimulates innovation, which is vital to keep a competitive edge for any organization. According to Parmar, author of The Most Empathetic Companies of 2016, empathy is something that needs to be demonstrated across three channels: internally, to their own employees, externally, to their customers, and finally to the public via social media. In this study the top empathetic companies varied in sector, from technology to travel/tourism to consumer goods, indicating that empathy can be part of any organization, no matter what vertical they belong to.
Sometimes feeling empathetic can come easy; if you yourself have gone through the hardship you see someone feeling you can relate to their situation because you’ve felt similar feelings. When you haven’t gone through a similar situation perspective taking can be used as a tool to see the problem from another’s point of view. When people show empathy by using perspective taking it uses the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ) of the brain which has recently been shown by Alexander Soutschek to also be linked to self-control. While this may seem counter intuitive at first, it actually makes perfect sense; empathy is putting yourself in other people’s shoes and seeing the world from their point of view, and self-control is putting yourself in your future self’s shoes and evaluating the benefits and consequences of your actions. In both cases the underlying skill needed to be empathetic and have self-control is perspective taking. The more empathy someone feels and the more self-control they exhibit the less likely situations escalate and the quicker resolutions occur.
Empathy is a key factor in the success of today’s organizations and will only occur in an organization when employees have the individual skills to express it. When an organization decides to make empathy a key focus they need to arm their employees with the right tool to increase their empathy and self-control. Perspective taking is the needed tool to see the situation from an individual’s point of view and understand the actors and factors involved in the individual’s challenge.
When we can be vulnerable and put our own biases and beliefs aside and see the challenge someone is facing from their point of view it creates a mutual respect for each other and diminishes the negativity. Organization can then see silos between departments fall and move towards being more customer centric.
Seth Godin sums up the importance of empathy in his blog ‘Empathy is a Bridge” where he writes “Gloating or silence closes the door. Empathy, on the other hand, and the action of speech, of moderation, of connection, can change everything. And if it hasn’t been present before, it can start right now.”
“I see you. I’m sorry for what you’re feeling. How can I help?”.