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  • Writer's pictureDean Slawson

You Can Develop Empathy. But Do You Care?

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

"It is hard to underestimate the value to an enterprise of a great employee experience, and how people get treated at work weighs heavily on that experience."

I like to define a great team as one that not only meets or exceeds all expectations, but also one that, when the work is accomplished, wants to do it again. Imagine, if you must, being part of a team that enjoys mutual trust and respect, is fun to work with, helps you grow while supporting you in doing and being your best, and achieves epic results for your customers and business. All else being equal, you will likely want to stick around, do great work and grow with such a team. If this does not ideally describe your current situation, or that of those you work with, read on.

It is hard to underestimate the value to an enterprise of a great employee experience, and how people get treated at work weighs heavily on that experience. Sustainably great teams have the ability to improve together, outpacing less functional teams that seethe and churn. Among things sustainably great teams don’t have are leaders or coworkers who harass, insult or bully; managers who micromanage or unfairly burden employees, dismiss their insights and ideas, blame them unforgivingly when things go poorly, or seek to bury their contributions when things go well. Too often leaders achieve “results” in ways that are not sustainable, treating humans as if they were expendable resources.

Daniel Golemen, based on the work of John Mayer, Peter Salovey and others, popularized a set of personal and social competences known as emotional intelligence or “EQ”. Included among these were self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Much has been written about EQ--some reasonably questioning whether it is really an "intelligence" or rather a trait, or its validity or usefulness as a psychological construct. But few would question the face value of interpersonal skills and the broader category of “soft skills,” considered to be top L&D priorities among enterprises today. Great leadership, and sustainably great teams, clearly rely on superlative people skills. Empathy continues to be cited as foundational. But valuable as it may be, can we really learn and improve on such a capability as empathy?

For one perspective, consider hungry babies: When you are within earshot of one, you will quickly notice where their attention is quite naturally focused: on the “me” and “now.” Their “Feed me! Now!” cries exemplify well this intent, conveyed with piercing clarity, and at regular intervals. Soon however most little ones advance to making eye contact, cooing, or otherwise engaging socially. As we mature, we enlarge our circle of concern for others, at first extending beyond self to those closest, at least to those we believe can serve our interests; at some point, hopefully, expanding more broadly. Even if constrained to giving preference to one's family, friends, tribe, party or nation, it appears our circle of concern for others can grow.

Besides expanding our circle of interest in others, as we develop we have opportunities to expand our sphere of concern beyond the "now," reaching back to appreciate antecedents and peering forward toward possible futures. We might ask, with the curiosity of the historian, “Why might she be acting this way?” Or, consider, “What long term outcomes might my beliefs or behaviors be leading towards?” As our “bigger picture” and “longer game” perspective matures (i.e. as we move beyond the "me" and "now") we become better attuned to making well-considered choices, including choices in the regard and care we demonstrate for others.

If as babies, with our limited experience and abilities to model self, "other," or future, we do not at first experience the full gamut of interpersonal life, as adults we must evidently have developed or unfolded such capacities along the way. While some tendencies may be resistant to change beyond a certain stage of development, there is ample evidence that the course of social skills development is, notwithstanding genetic, neurobiological or cultural influences, not entirely mapped out for us. If you've kept trying, you will eventually come to realize that to one degree or another, you are able to become better with people. I have.

Now, even if you do not subscribe to the idea that magnanimous concern for humanity is something that can or ought to be elicited in the workplace, or believe that thinking beyond the immediate task is within your, or your team's scope, it should be clear that we neither grow to realize fully our potential, nor continue to work in sustainably effective teams, if we do not learn to attend to the longer range and broader interests of our immediate and adjacent team members, our management chain, board or shareholders, our business partners or customers. And in the age of social media, pretending to care is simply not a sustainable strategy--if ever it was. Business that don’t care, don’t last.

So I submit that empathy, along with other “soft skills,” not only must be learned, but can be, even if such an effort reaches beyond the brief workshop or simple tutorial. Of course it's great if you can always hire and retain exactly what you will need in both technical and soft skills, but that is rare. Fortunately, accelerants are available, but to grow people skills, and build sustainably great teams, the principles by which they operate must be well understood, a clear understanding of the necessary conditions of learning obtained, effective approaches and technologies properly employed, and a long-term outlook and course of action pursued. The road is long, but traversable. Meanwhile, for those who still question, “What if we invest in developing our people, and then they leave us?” it can be helpful to remember the dreadful corollary (attributed to Peter Baeklund), “What if we don’t, and then they stay?”

We learn to work effectively with people and develop interpersonal abilities, like empathy, through observing examples and their consequences, through stories and coaching, but mostly through practice—in other words, by trying, within a broadening range of contexts, by learning from results, and trying again. Empathy as described by psychologist Paul Ekman and others includes a cognitive component; that is, to be able to conceive of how another may be feeling, thinking or framing what they are experiencing. It also critically includes that affective aspect of sensing how others are feeling; and, thirdly, a compassion which moves us to act.

But in order for empathy to make a difference, we must know how to respond effectively, to practice the caring response, and to refine that practice through action. Respecting and regarding others with concern may not come naturally. We won't always respond emotionally in the most desirable ways, or consistently act in ways that show concern or are actually helpful. When confronted with the everyday opportunities to practice empathy in our interactions with others, we may at first not do things quite right. We probably won’t. Observing others modeling empathy, continual practice with feedback are ever the keys to continual improvement.

To create a sustainably great company or team, however, it is not sufficient to understand how others are thinking or feeling, nor merely to practice some set of behaviors. People may appreciate the attempt at a less than fully genuine gesture of concern. At least those first attempts can constitute an earnest effort, even if their impact pales in contrast to the heartfelt. But in the end this is not a new idea. To work effectively with others, first you need to care.

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