Five facts about empathy in the workplace

content empathy handshake

You may have heard managers speaking about the importance of being more empathetic towards colleagues and clients. But it turns out that empathy is not just one thing. Let’s look at five facts about empathy and why it matters in the workplace.

Understanding the case for empathy

Empathy is the ability to imagine how other people might be feeling or thinking. From an evolutionary perspective, empathy may have provided a competitive advantage: it likely helped our ancestors to predict whether others should be trusted or feared.

Research conducted within real organisations tells us that empathy has multiple benefits at work. A study led by Ned Kock at Texas A&M International University found that leaders who demonstrated higher levels of empathy helped their employees to experience higher levels of both job satisfaction and job performance. Separately, researchers headed up by Jan Wieseke at Ruhr-University of Bochum found that customer-facing employees who demonstrated greater levels of empathy achieved higher levels of customer satisfaction.

Distinguishing between two types of empathy

Psychologists have discovered that empathy consists of at least two related skills: perspective taking and emotional empathy. Researchers led by Northwestern University’s Adam Galinsky define perspective taking – also sometimes called cognitive empathy – as the capacity to consider the world from another individual’s viewpoint and to think about what the other person may be thinking about.

In contrast, emotional empathy is the ability to feel the feelings of another person. Emotional empathy is not about wondering about the emotions of another; instead, it’s about summoning up and actually experiencing fear, sadness, excitement or whatever feelings that another may be facing.

To further illustrate the differences between perspective taking versus emotional empathy, consider instructions that I typically use when I am training people in the two skills.

  • For perspective taking (cognitive empathy): ‘In order to take the perspective of someone that you are dealing with, try to understand what they are thinking. Try to work out their interests and purposes. Try to imagine what you would be thinking if you were in their situation.’
  • For emotional empathy: ‘In order to empathise emotionally with someone that you are dealing with, try to feel what they are feeling. Try to imagine the emotions they may be feeling. Try to feel what you would be feeling if you were in their situation.’

Using the different types of empathy

Perspective taking or cognitive empathy is a process of rationally trying to work out what another person is thinking – ascertaining their goals and objectives, for instance. On the other hand, emotional empathy involves trying to feel at least partly what someone else might be feeling. So, if you feel that someone may be feeling sad or angry, emotional empathy involves allowing yourself to feel a little sad or angry too.

Several hundred studies have been conducted on the benefits of perspective taking versus emotional empathy. Using a statistical technique known as meta-analysis to analyse these previous investigations, researchers led by Natalie Longmire at the McCombs School of Business found that the two skills typically led to different outcomes.

In negotiations, perspective taking was found to be beneficial but emotional empathy was detrimental to getting the best financial outcomes. In other words, if you are dealing with an opponent and want to get the best deal, then engage in perspective taking – try to work out their goals, objectives and concerns, for example. Perspective taking allows you to be more strategic in capturing a greater amount of value.

However, emotional empathy may be more useful for demonstrating support for others and building long-term relationships. For example, Northwestern University’s Adam Galinsky and his collaborators found that people who were on the receiving end of emotional empathy reported a higher degree of satisfaction with how they were dealt with than those who were on the receiving end of perspective taking.

Choosing to use either perspective taking or emotional empathy may therefore depend on your ultimate aims. If you are trying to beat an opponent in a one-off negotiation, then perspective taking should help you to secure the best financial deal. In a one-off encounter, it may matter less that the counterparty may feel less satisfied with the outcome. However, if you are trying to build a long-term relationship – perhaps you want repeat business with a customer – then emotional empathy may be the better choice for helping the counterparty to feel more goodwill towards you.

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Considering the relationship between power and empathy

Research suggests that powerful people may have a reduced tendency to empathise with others. Power is defined by psychologists as the capacity to influence or have control over other people – for example, the ability to dispense rewards and punishments.

Studies have found that people with high power may be less likely to empathise with others. One research investigation led by Steven Blader at New York University found that people with more power were measurably less accurate at recognising the emotions displayed on other people’s faces than people with less power. Putting it another way, powerful people are slightly but measurably less able to comprehend how other people think and feel.

The difference can be measured on a neurological level. There is a collection of brain regions called the motor resonance system, which is activated when a person observes someone else performing an action. A team of neuroscientists led by Jeremy Hogeveen at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada found that people with high power demonstrated a lower degree of motor resonance than those with low power. The brains of people with high power may physically be less stimulated when observing others than the brains of people with low power.

As a consequence, do not be surprised should you observe that people further up the hierarchy may be less aware of the issues faced by more junior employees. The brains of more powerful people may literally have become less sensitive to others’ actions.

Understanding the difference between empathy and compassion

Emotional empathy is about attempting or allowing ourselves to feel what others may be feeling. But when others are feeling negative emotions such as fear or pain, engaging in emotional empathy means that we may share the experience of suffering too. This can be particularly problematic when working with very distressed individuals such as patients, refugees, or even colleagues experiencing difficult circumstances.

In such situations, neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki suggest it may be healthier to respond to the suffering of others not with empathy but compassion. Emotional empathy involves trying to experience to a degree the suffering of others. In contrast, compassion involves expressing warmth, concern and helpfulness towards others – without attempting to experience their suffering. As Singer and Kimecki write: ‘Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.’

When others around you are suffering, emotional empathy may simply make you suffer and want to withdraw from others. More usefully, focusing on feeling compassion for others may not only be less distressing for you – it may also motivate you to take action in the real world that may make more of a difference to others.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace @robyeung

This article was first published in Student Accountant in March 2022

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