Sliding the empathy scale

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. This ability (in contrast to simply listening to others, or hearing them out) lays the foundation for making connections with others, and being able to influence them effectively.

Differences and conflicts occur on a regular basis in most normal workplaces. In order to deal with those it is of critical importance that we be able to experience how a situation looks and feels from the other person’s perspective. This enables us to work together to meet the needs of both parties and to forge strong relationships based on mutual trust and respect.

Is a high level of empathy always a good thing? No, probably not. In business, we will wish to understand how major decisions will have a possible negative impact on others. However, sharing all potential negative feelings can lead to paralysis when tough, unsentimental decisions are required. ‘Empathy’ is good – on a sliding scale. A CEO who is seen as heartless will not earn the ‘engagement’ of his or her people. He or she must, however, be able to make tough decisions, for example by slashing headcount.

If I visit a doctor I hope he or she will understand my condition and then be able to diagnose the problem and offer relief. I will also expect a certain measure of sympathy from the doctors and nurses I encounter. It makes me feel seen as a person, not just as a ‘case’.
But I do not expect him or her to share in all my pain and misery. Sharing in the misery of all their patients would make life unbearable. Caregivers must protect themselves against ‘empathy fatigue’, also known as ‘secondary posttraumatic stress disorder’.

Returning to colleagues and clients: our observation is that there is not enough empathy in the workplace, people will feel a lack of understanding and respect in the face of normal differences.

The link below will take you to a 10-minute animation around this theme. It deals primarily with a need for greater empathy at the level of human relationships in general, the social level. But nothing stops you starting small, with a little smile or a really meant ‘I’m sorry for you’.

Time for a chat?

In the course of a recent Focus on Influence programme for a high-tech organisation, one of the participants (a project manager) remarked how much he was enjoying it to be able to have some really good conversations with his colleagues. “Now that I think about it,” he continued, “we really never have time for conversations at work.” “Well, what happens during project team meetings, consultations and performance reviews?” I asked. “They occur regularly, but consist mainly of checking off and adding to action lists. Really thinking together about what we’re doing and why is not something we do. And one-on-ones with colleagues we don’t go beyond removing obstacles and solving problems.”

A female colleague continued: “Conversations with my manager are basically one-way; I get to hear that I should be delivering results even more quickly. In China they work 14 hours a day, so why don’t I work longer hours if necessary? I feel as if I’m a machine. I spend 90% of my time behind a computer screen. I’m never asked for my thoughts about how we’re doing things.” Just to be clear: she is an academically trained and highly motivated professional of Chinese background.

It is now 15 years since I worked in large organisation myself. During that time I developed many of my current approaches to training programmes on  conversational and interpersonal skills, including Focus on Influence. But perhaps the times have caught up with them.

Back then there was also great pressure on results, but there was always time between everything else for (sometimes lengthy) discussions. Discussions, which, I believe, were very important for building relationships and creating an inspiring climate. The participants’ comments set me to thinking, is there, in this day and age, still time for sense-making conversation in organisations? I put this question to a wise and experienced former colleague.

“Erik, when you worked for the company, early in the nineties, it was still a collegial, industrial organisation, with an integrated chain from Research & Development through to Sales. When a new CEO appeared changes were introduced. From that moment on Anglo-Saxon shareholder value, quarterly results and outsourcing became the focus. In my view, discussions since then have had, as their main goal, covering one’s ass and surviving.”

Maybe the statements of several participants, under high pressure at work, and the controversial ones of the former colleague, do not form an accurate barometer of the ‘conversational climate’ in today’s organisations. Nevertheless, I think it is important to check out the truth-value of their assertions. If it is indeed the case that there is no time to conduct, in a fundamental discussion, an exploration of basic understandings, or to examine the underlying necessity of stated targets, then interpersonal skills programmes of several days are of little relevance. Why equip people with skills, which they will rarely be able or permitted to use?

In order to gain a better understanding of the day-to-day realities I will  approach several former participants with the request to send to me a diary log of a random day, with a brief explanation of the content and approach taken during any conversations which occurred. I hope they will find the time to do so.
Erik Boers