Empathy: Is it a superhero power or essential ingredient for engagement and performance in todays’ workplace?
Recently at a networking lunch an old friend and former colleague asked a question that my 8 year old boy asks me all the time: “if you could have any superhero power what would it be”?
Having much practice at answering this question I quickly said the ability to be invisible whenever I wanted. My old friend said that the one superhero power that he would really love to have was the ability to truly understand another person’s perspective. He felt it would be the most powerful skill of all..but really not possible as a mere mortal.
This all-powerful skill he was describing I call ‘Empathy’. His interest in empathy was from the perspective of a senior marketing leader for one of Australia’s largest public organizations. He was intrigued by the notion of the power of truly understanding your customer’s perspective.
My interest in empathy is from the perspective of an executive coach with a passionate interest in workplace engagement and performance. For me my performance as a coach is based on my ability to be empathetic. It is an essential skill that I must cultivate and bring to the table in every coaching conversation. Nothing happens without it. So I endeavor to do empathy every day!
But our conversation got me thinking about and researching empathy and it’s potential power in the workplace, Could it increase engagement and performance of employees? Is it an essential skill for all leaders? Could it be a ‘competitive’ edge?
At its essence empathy is really our ability to connect with and understand others. It is the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to think how they think, feel how they feel, and anticipate how they will react or respond in different situations.
To be seen, heard and understood at work; I cannot think of a more important component to increase engagement and enhance performance.
There has been extensive research on the relationship between leadership effectiveness and levels of empathy demonstrated. High levels of empathy have been shown to build trust, improve retention, increase motivation levels and deepen employee-leader relationships. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Economics Business and Management Studies http://tinyurl.com/ov2xnuc revealed a strong correlation between the level of empathy demonstrated by organizations leaders and the level of leadership effectiveness.
Empathy is good for business and it is good for employees.
It seems we are actually wired for empathy. Marco Iacoboni, an Italian Neuroscientist discovered areas in our brain that maps to or mirrors the patterns in the brains of others. They are called ‘mirror neurons’ and they are evidence of the fact that we are social animals and connection with others is not only essential for engagement and performance at work but to our survival and sense of well-being.
So the good news is that empathy not just a superhero power but a skill that can be learned and developed. In fact, a number of top business schools are teaching empathy as an integral part of leadership and communication coursework.
The key practices of being more empathetic are:
· Become curious about others.
· Challenge your biases and stereotypes and look for common ground.
· Imagine what is like to be the other person & appreciate their perspective.
· Listen actively and deeply—and share some of yourself.
It takes a bit of extra time and effort to listen with empathy but the benefits are well worth it. If you are not sure about this notion spend a few minutes reflecting on how you felt when someone was empathetic with you at work. What did it do for you? How did it effect your relationship with that person?
If you are curious about how empathetic you are?
Take the free Empathy Quiz offered by Berkeley University: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes/take_quiz/14
Alternatively you could try and source a “Point-of View” (POV) gun as in The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. When the POV is fired at someone it causes them to see the perspective of the person who pulled the trigger; although you would have to lend the gun to others and have it fired at yourself. My son would love this! Truly a superhero weapon! Imagine the good it would do in parliament houses, war zones, boardrooms and school-yards around the world.
“Yet, taught by time, my heart has learned to glow for other's good,
and melt at other's woe”. Homer