One of the significant indicators of successful business is it's ability for growth through innovation; organizations that are led by leaders who harness creativity to constantly push into newer territories. However often overlooked factor that those business leaders have, which allows them to understand the future; gives them the ability to gauge the needs of their stakeholders is empathy. As Jayson Boyers argues in the Forbes "behind every successful business, you are likely to find a leader who has mastered the skill of empathy (Jayson Boyers: Why empathy is the force that moves the business forward, 2013 Forbes,https://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2013/05/30/why-empathy-is-the-force-that-moves-business-forward/#5cdff0ad169e)
We live in a culture where business rivals will at the least try and eat into each other's market and at the worst aim to destroy each other. And so it is increasingly important that organizations have internal cohesiveness to counter the rivalry outside. In times where organizations are becoming global; where leaders not only have to lead groups that are mixed gendered but also mix ethnic, religious and cultured. More and more leaders need to be able to connect with these mixed teams and be sensitive towards them. We live in times when market is ever changing and it is important for the leader to anticipate these changes and change accordingly. And hence the leader needs to have one vital skill "empathy"
So what is empathy? The most commonly understood meaning of empathy is to look at the world from another person's perspective, "to be in their shoes". However, one needs to be careful while following this. In reality, how can one understand what the other person is feeling and thinking? It may lead to misunderstandings and frustrations rather than build relations. Empathy doesn't make assumptions. It is about "trying to" understand the other persons' emotions and perspectives through communication. Paul Perkins in his TED talk suggests "Empathy forges communication that is inquisitive, non-judgmental, validating and compassionate" (Paul Perkins, 9th July 2015; Re-imaging Empathy: The Transformative Nature of Empathy, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4aHb_GTRVo). What it means is that through communication we primarily change ourselves; empathy makes us see others in a different lens, helps us rewrite the narratives that we tell ourselves about the others.
Mammals are soft-wired to feel empathy due to our fundamentally different strategy of reproduction. Reptiles lay eggs out of which offspring hatch out with instinctive knowledge of survival. Therefore, the parental duty of the reptile ends at laying eggs and thus reptiles do not have the brain parts to feel empathy. Mammals give birth to fragile young ones. They have to be protected from harm and cold, fed, have to be ferried around and need to be communicated with so as the parent understands the needs of the young one. Therefore mammals have the brain parts to feel empathy (Dr. Thomas Lewis: Neuroscience of Empathy, December 2007, Talks@ Google). Research in socio-neuro-psychology (No! I am not making this word up, there is such a field) has also proven that we have mirror neurons; when you see a person feeling anger, frustration, pain or joy, these neurons automatically activate the same parts of the brain that are activated in that person. Which is why we say "Laughter is contagious"; it actually is.
o what does this information mean in terms of building organizational leadership. It means that all leaders (who have a fully functioning brain) can actually lead with empathy, can build better teams, can help organizations prosper and grow, can lead the organization to a better future. But then why isn't empathy so common? Why don't we have more people who feel compassionate about others, who lead with empathy? The main reason for that is 'Self obsession' (Daniel Goleman; Why aren't we more compassionate, 2007, TED talk)
Throughout our day we are so busy thinking about ourselves, our problems, our goals, our needs that we don't give enough attention to the other. A classic example would be asking for a leave during the financial year end (I can see a few smiles). What does generally happen when a team mate asks the boss for a leave during the financial closing? The boss, who is stressed with work pressure(and is thinking about himself) is reluctant to give a leave to the team mate. The team mate (who is thinking about his need) feels the boss is insensitive to his wants. And this results in increased stress, misunderstanding, and a fractured team. Other social examples of this are: accident victims not getting help, neighbor dying without anyone knowing, insensitive methods of cutting costs in organizations, unhealthy competition within teams
People often believe that empathy is only about giving empathy. Empathy is also about being receptive to empathy. We have a tendency to look at the world in a black and white view and therefore we try to label ourselves from that view. We pretend to be perfect, to not need help. Therefore we either have relationships that are not authentic, or distance ourselves from people and thus miss-out on having emotionally intimate relationships. We don't open ourselves, make ourselves vulnerable to accept empathy from others. Empathy is most transformative when both parties receive and give empathy. Today, what the organization (and the society) needs is not individuals who feel empathy but having a culture of empathy within the organization. When the organization has a culture of empathy, it can transform relationships, make better connections with stakeholders. Having a culture of empathy can reduce stress within the organization thus reducing employee turnover and energies can be utilized in making innovations and in growth.
Empathy is not a role that one takes on in times of need. It is not about saying "Oh, I think the person is distressed let me try empathizing with them". It is a constant state of being. When we are always emphatic, it shapes the way we see things, the way we communicate, the way we respond. And when you have a culture of empathy in the organization, where everyone is always in the state of being empathetic, you create connections. And those connections are transformative. So don't wear empathy like a hat, only to protect your head. Use it like salt, to give flavor to your life