Empathy is on the decline in our society. Research shows empathy declining in groups across society from health care workers to college students. One study revealed that college students’ levels of empathy dropped 40 percent in 10 years.
Technology has contributed significantly to these declines. People maintain primary contacts – immediate family and close friends – but your neighbors, the people at the café, the sort of secondary folks in your community, those are the people that we are not engaging with because we have our noses down in our phones. And all of that lack of contact affects our level of empathy, our ability to understand the perspective of others.
So, does declining empathy affect the workplace? In a 2018 State of Workplace Empathy report, 96 percent of respondents rated empathy as important, but 92 percent of employees surveyed also believe empathy remains undervalued at their company. Another study found that business leaders all over the world ranked empathy as the number one value in leadership. Why empathy over other values? There are several possible explanations.
First, the monolithic group formerly known as the audience — the passive customer, the compliant patient, the couch potato — are all relics of the pre-digital past when communication was mostly a one-way street from seller to buyer. Now communication goes both ways. Today’s multiple and highly vocal audiences demand to be heard or they will take their business elsewhere. You need empathy to know who those audiences are and what they want.
Empathetic understanding is also indispensable in increasingly diverse markets, like those of the U.S., Germany, and even Japan, and in other cultures around the world. Neither technical knowledge nor business acumen suffices. You must be sincerely interested in understanding other cultural preferences and choices.
Empathy counts inside company walls, too. Many companies have abandoned rigid hierarchies and top-down command, believing that collaboration produces better results than cutthroat competition. In these companies, relationships and persuasion have become essential for success. And to persuade effectively you must be able to empathize.
One researcher suggests that empathy is vital for leaders because it is positively related to the innate motivation of followers. Furthermore, empathy is helpful when solving problems in the workplace because it enables leaders to make immediate connections with employees, facilitates a more accurate assessment of employee performance, and yields better outcomes. Goleman states that empathy is a must-have virtue for leaders because it can inspire, motivate, envision, and lead others to greater effectiveness.
Contrary to early theories on the key elements of leadership, such as authority or dominance, researchers suggest that the 21st century brings a whole new set of demands, which radically change the way leaders will perform. Others would agree that, while cognitive abilities such as expertise and problem solving are antecedents to effective leadership, emotional abilities, or social skills, are equally as significant for today’s leaders and can often determine who will and who will not be successful.
Some propose that there is something wrong with today’s corporate world. That its individualistic leaders possess little empathy or inter-human skills. While there is general consensus about qualities such as intelligence, charisma, responsibility, vision, and passion, there are some ‘softer,’ more emotion driven skills, such as compassion and empathy, that have not been widely accepted as befitting of leadership execution. Humans are hardwired to connect to others. We are in an era where the nicest leaders will be the most successful and that ‘soft’ behaviors lead to hard results.
Leadership behavior requires a vital ingredient, which is the willingness of the leader to implement particular behaviors. In light of many ethical disasters in today’s contemporary corporate working world, companies are now more than ever seeking empathetic leaders to run organizations and generate positive outcomes. Cheril Clarke, a business communications expert and founder of PhenomenalWriting.com, wrote of one such example in her most recent blog post:
“Not everyone is handling executive communications with grace during this pandemic. Over the last few weeks, several executives have made unfortunate blunders when discussing strategies and handling of employees. Most notably, Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky spoke ill of a whistleblowing employee, Chris Smalls, in a leaked memo. According to Vice, Zapolsky stated of Smalls that, “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position.”
Though the notes were never intended for public consumption, they still highlight the nightmare of poor executive communication and a lack of empathy from corporate leaders. COVID-19 is an opportunity for employers to lessen anxiety among employee ranks through compassionate and constructive dialogue. It is a chance to uplift and encourage workers rather than reinforce stereotypes of aloofness and class division.”
The nature of organizations, work and what motivates people has changed, and leadership needs to change to continue to be an important force. The days of the stereotypic autocratic, bureaucratic leader who exclusively focuses on task completion and “doing things” while ignoring the emotional states of employees has long passed. That change must be reflected in the kinds of people we choose and promote as leaders. We need to emphasize, encourage and develop emotional intelligence and empathy, or risk the negative consequences of not doing so.