Research Paper By Shripad Ranade
(Leadership Coach, INDIA)
Empathy has been recognised as a concept from the earliest civilisations, and by the earliest philosophers, in some form or the other. Our understanding of empathy has dramatically deepened in recent years, due to advances in neuroscience and psychology.
Today, it is recognised that empathy is the ability to understand a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. Several types of empathy have been recognised, but often, when empathy is mentioned in non-academic settings, we mean only one of these types of empathy and may even be unaware of other types of empathy.
Daniel Goleman has recognised three types of empathy: cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective; emotional empathy is the ability to feel what someone else feels; and finally, the empathic concern is the ability to sense what another person needs from you.
As early humans settled into larger groups which developed into civilisations, it became necessary to establish some rules for a peaceful and orderly society. Empathy appears to have played a role in enabling cooperation and peace in prehistoric societies. Later, in historical times, it was codified into laws and scriptures.
Hillel, a renowned Jewish scholar of the 1stcentury AD, found that at that time, pious Jews were expected to live up to 613 commandments. It was impossible for most people to remember all the laws, let alone follow them. Hillel’s ingenious solution was, to sum up, all the commandments in a single guideline:
Do not unto thy neighbour what is hateful unto thee; that is the whole law. All the rest is commentary.
Variations of this principle are found in the scriptures of all the major religions, and collectively this is referred to as the golden rule.
A narrow interpretation of the golden rule, to mean that you should do to others what you would like them to do to you, has been criticised as insensitive to differences in values & interests, and to differences in situations. However, a broader interpretation is that you consider these differences, and hence accurately imagine the effect of your actions on the other person – the thoughts and the feelings that are likely to arise in that person, rather than what would arise in you if you were in that situation. As we saw earlier, this is essentially the practice of empathy.
Of course, most of the time the golden rule works by itself to keep the peace between people, and the law steps in when this voluntary compliance breaks down. To write a law that works well, once again, it requires a lawmaker to imagine how people have reacted and will react to each other’s actions.
After about three millennia of being studied as part of religious scripture and moral philosophy, in recent times empathy has been studied from a secular perspective, first as a tenet of humanism, then as a trait in psychology, and finally as a phenomenon in neurobiology.
Over the last few decades, we have discovered the neurobiology of empathy, including how the brain creates empathy, and why people intrinsically differ in their empathy. Two important studies in 2004 reported that the same parts of the brain are activated both by experiencing pain ourselves and by watching others experience pain. Further research into subtypes of empathy has led to two models. One model divides empathy into emotional empathy (sharing the emotions of others), and cognitive empathy (understanding the thoughts and motivations of others). Another model divides empathy into personal distress (focused on alleviating one’s own pain), and empathetic concern or compassion (feeling sympathy for another person).
It is now understood that both children and adults can learn empathy as a skill, and that empathy is an essential aspect of emotional and social intelligence, thereby being a significant “life skill” that can lead to success and happiness.
With the exception of a few (and growing) numbers of new-age businesses, most corporate workplaces around the world drive or allow a culture which suppresses the open and unfiltered expression of emotions. There is pressure to conform to norms of socially and organisationally appropriate behaviour, along with a need to appear competent and in control. This makes leaders, managers, and workers mask their emotions. The work done to suppress emotions at the workplace has been researched and described as emotional labour.
Nowadays, most businesses have realised the limited utility of grossly exploitative employee practices and have moved away from them. However, it is often the attitude of managers or leaders, that efficiency, leading to financial performance, is the primary objective at the workplace, and that employee engagement is at best a means to such performance, and at worst, an impediment. Empathetic behaviour towards employees is hence considered optional, or even undesirable.
Many leaders, managers or workers conflate empathy with sympathy, morality, or sentimentality. People who display empathy at the workplace, particularly in the context of the ethics, are hence seen as weak or emotional, and less effective.
Even in organisations where there is broad agreement that empathy is necessary for organisational success, there is often disagreement on whether it is actually being practised. Leaders often believe that they are empathetic, but followers often say that their leaders lack empathy. 
At the frontline, in jobs such as factory worker, salesperson, and counter staff, there is frequently a lack of formal language available to deal with the concept of empathy. However, there is a general understanding of the golden rule mentioned earlier in this document. In conversations with frontline staff, I have received responses such as:
- “my manager needs to show more sympathy towards my workload”,
- “some customers have specific difficulties in their lives or with our product and I try to look at it from the customer’s point of view”,
- “workers here are happy because the management respects us – we aren’t paid very highly but respect is as important as money and they understand that”, and
- “as a buyer of industrial supplies for my company, I prefer suppliers who seem to understand what we go through when their product is a pain to work with”.
Compared to these frontline responses, supervisors and managers tend to have a more nuanced understanding of empathy. Successful managers realise that if they are able to understand how their boss, peers, and the team think about something, they would be able to manage the environment, and their job outcomes, better. However, the focus is often only on imagining how others would think, and not much on how they would feel.
Many senior executives and corporate leaders go a step beyond this and regularly practice empathy as a skill, recognising that it entails understanding both what others think and what they feel. They utilise this understanding not only to gain trust, engage, lead, collaborate, innovate and build the brand, but also to manoeuvre through organisational politics. Unfortunately, there is a significant number of leaders who are not sufficiently empathetic. A common obstacle in practising empathy is the perspective gap – people tend to underestimate the intensity of a particular thought or feeling in others if they have never had the thought or feeling for themselves. 
Bullying is a common phenomenon in the workplace and a dramatic example of the breakdown of empathy. Most organisations have policies in place against bullying or harassment. However, a part of the challenge of understanding and eradicating bullying behaviour is that it can take many forms and is difficult to define. Bullying is a persistent pattern of mistreatment, by one or more other people in the workplace, that causes a person physical or emotional harm. It is common for the bully to be a supervisor or employer. However, bullying can and does occur between any two or more people at the workplace, irrespective of their roles and formal position in the power structure.
Some studies have suggested that a person becomes a bully because of low self-esteem, past trauma, and overall poor mental health. This approach suggests that by identifying supposed weaknesses in a victim and shaming the victim for them, the bully projects his own shame onto the victim. However other studies show that many bullies have high self-esteem and choose to collaborate and display pro-social behaviour when convenient. This means that bullying is a tactical choice and not pathological behaviour.
In either case, bullying is geared towards competing and winning. While there is nothing inherently problematic with the competition, the actions degenerate into bullying if they are aggressive, dishonest, repetitive, and cause harm to the other. What makes workplace bullying so relevant to a discussion on workplace empathy is that research suggests that aggressiveness, assertiveness, competitiveness and independence, which are some of the personality traits of bullies, are also common among corporate leaders .
It is interesting to note that bullies typically rate high on social intelligence but low on emotional intelligence . Other research suggests that bullies may be high on cognitive empathy but low on affective empathy.
Remedies to workplace bullying, based on laws and policies, do not seem to be effective in reducing bullying. Techniques such as motivational interviewing, where the motivations such as social dominance and workplace success are explicitly recognised, and then juxtaposed with the harm caused to the victim, seem to hold more promise in getting a bully to channel aggression into prosocial activities. If the workplace culture recognises empathy as a core value, and hence bullying is no longer “cool”, its incidence tends to diminish.
As seen above, empathy serves a purpose in an organisation, for employees, for leaders, for the business and for its partners. Enlightened companies are increasingly aware that delivering empathy for their customers, employees, and the public is a powerful tool for improving profits. However, attempts to implement empathy programs are constrained by the common misconception of empathy as “wishy-washy,” “touchy-feely,” and overtly feminine. Because of these misconceptions, an attempt at evangelising empathy in the organisation is viewed with cynicism and disinterest.
However, the case for including empathy as a core organisational value is clear. Recent rankings of the most empathetic companies show that these companies retain the best people, create environments where diverse teams thrive, and ultimately reap the greatest financial rewards.
In general, competence on a job can be understood as being composed of a) threshold competencies that are the minimal skills required to carry out tasks associated with a position, and b) distinguishing competencies that set apart the star performers from the average performers. For leadership positions, neither the technical expertise nor intellectual ability distinguish stars from average performers –almost all the difference in performance is explained by emotional intelligence related competencies. Hence, leaders need to pay close attention to empathy and develop it as an essential leadership skill for themselves.
Daniel Goleman, speaking about empathy, says that it is cognitive empathy that enables a leader to meaningfully explain himself – which is essential in getting the best performance from his team. This requires both inquisitiveness about others and self-awareness. It also includes being able to think about others feelings.
Being able to feel others feelings directly is emotional empathy, which is important for tasks like mentoring, for handling clients, and for understanding the dynamics of a group. Certain parts of the brain, beneath the cortex, allow us to feel fast, without thinking deeply. But this requires being aware of one’s own feelings as well as being aware of the other person’s external signs of emotion.
Empathic concern, which is closely related to emotional empathy, enables the leader to sense what people need from him or her. It seems to have arisen from the mammalian instinct that compels parents’ attention to their children.
Empathy is a particularly important tool in the leader’s toolbox during times of organisational change. In today’s volatile and uncertain business environment, transformational changes at the organisational level or at least those that affect entire teams, are frequent. Studies on organizational change show that communicating empathetically during a transformation is critical . However, most leaders do not know how to go about this. The leader needs to profile the audience by empathetically listening to understand what their concerns are. Thereafter, the leader has to tell people what to expect, and to involve individuals across all levels .
When coaching a client who is a leader, the coach may hypothesis that empathy is a possible area of skill building for the client. This hypothesis could be based on inputs from HR, directors, the client, or from an assessment that the client has agreed to undergo. In some cases, the coach may have been told that the entire organisation or business led by the leader, shows symptoms of empathy deficit. Such a deficit could be partly traceable to the leader’s behaviour or messaging.
Professional coaching is a client-led partnership. The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. Hence, even if there is a hypothesis that the client may need to develop empathy, the coach should not carry an agenda of imparting empathy, or any other skill, to the client, while entering the coaching relationship. Sometimes, the client may explicitly ask to be coached on empathy. However, often this requirement will be implicit, as the client may ask to be coached to develop leadership competencies, to lead better, to reduce conflict, to communicate better, and so on.
Coaches need to keep in mind that there could be a number of reasons why some leaders are unwilling or unable to be empathetic, or both:
- they are unaware that they have low empathy, and honestly believe that they are empathetic. In some cases, they have bad listening habits and imagine they have listened to all that was said
- they are uncomfortable recognising and validating emotions, both their own and of others
- they find it difficult to be empathetic towards a competitor or opponent, perhaps fearing that empathy shall be mistaken as a sign of weakness or that they would be agreeing with the contrarian position
- they have a conflicting agenda such as a looming deadline, scarce resources, or being worried about the effect on the performance of the team or their own performance or reputation
- they are unhappy or burnt out by the emotional toll taken by their job
- they believe that other people deserve any troubles that they have, or hold prejudices (such as racism, queer-phobia, sexism and bigotry) or moral judgments, that block their empathy towards people who are different from them
- they may be young or inexperienced – it is difficult to imagine thoughts and feelings that they have not had a chance to experience themselves, in their lives so far
The role of the coach is then to partner with the client to explore the phenomena present, and then to support the client to develop a different and empowering perspective that develops the client’s empathy – ultimately leading to greater success and happiness for the client.
Some of the typical actions that may emerge from such coaching are :
- The client deepens curiosity about others at the workplace and embarks on a journey of discovering what others are trying to say or convey
- The client works on moving from a competitive to a collaborative mindset
- The client takes steps for self-care, to create the emotional and mental capacity to empathise
- The client and the organisation work together to provide the client with unfiltered feedback
- The client recognises the distractive and addictive nature of modern technology, as well as the barriers to personal interaction created by the size and scale of the organisation, and takes the time and effort to connect face to face with people and be fully present and undistracted in such interactions
- The client chooses to be vulnerable by acknowledging when overworked or when there are too many relationships to manage. The client delegates work or relinquish authority, as needed.
Empathy is a core skill for all professional coaching. The ICF core competencies call for coaches to practice empathetic behaviour in order to perform against several of the competencies e.g.
#2 – Establishing the coaching agreement (by exploring what about the coaching goal is meaningful to the client),
#4 – Coaching Presence (by being empathetic, observant and responsive, by noticing the client’s energy shifts, and by being curious to learn more),
#5 – Active Listening (by exploring how the client perceives their world, by exploring the client’s emotions etc.),
#6 – Powerful Questioning (by using the client’s language, the frame of reference, and learning style),
#7 – Direct Communication (by using language that reflects the client’s way of speaking), and
#11 – Managing progress and accountability (by allowing the client to determine what methods of accountability work for them)
When coaching executives in the workplace, the ability to form a strong connection with the executive is reported to be the most desired personal characteristic of the coach. This involves demonstrating empathy and warmth, building trust, listening skilfully, and engaging quickly. The coach has to make an attempt to understand not only what the client executive thinks and feels, but also the organisational context in which the client functions.
Empathy has been practised and studied throughout human civilisation. Today, we understand the neuroscience behind it. Most workplaces discourage the expression and acknowledgment of emotions. There are misconceptions about the nature of empathy and misgivings about the role that empathy should play in the workplace. Bullying in the workplace is a particularly stark example of the danger of an empathy deficit in the workplace. We have found that adults can learn to practice empathy. The practice of empathy is far more important for leaders than for those in routine jobs. Coaches can support their clients to build empathy as a skill. This needs exploration of both the workplace context and personal mindset that makes them unable or unwilling to practice empathy. Executive clients prefer coaches who can empathetically connect to them and their concerns.
In summary, empathy is an inherent trait of human behaviour, a critical ingredient of workplace culture, an essential leadership skill, and one of the foundations of effective workplace coaching.
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