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The Power of Empathy in Life and Business

Updated on June 18, 2015

The Power of Empathy in Life and Business

Empathy is an understanding of the feelings, thoughts, and motivations of others with an open-minded appreciation for the full spectrum of human experience. It enhances communication by minimizing personal bias and providing the perspective necessary to truly hear others and respond appropriately to clearly convey thoughts, provide direction, and motivate people. Most of us are so confined by our own perceptions and life experiences that it is difficult to have a truly impartial and significant exchange of ideas. To make matters worse, the abbreviated and impersonal nature of texting, email, and social media only serves to further distort the substance and meaning of our conversations. George Bernard Shaw said “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”.

Empathy is consistent with goodwill and charity, a lack of greed and aggression, and is the cornerstone of personal relationships. It is the single most important asset for success in both life and business, yet is not even addressed in most elementary, high school, or college curriculums. Most of us have a natural capacity for caring and compassion, but true understanding needs to be developed like any other quality through teaching, repetition, and practice in order to realize one’s full potential and create the foundation for a successful, meaningful life. The assumption that our personalities are set at an early age and life will mold our character is flawed. Not only does it take a long time to work but the level of success is highly dependent on being exposed to positive influences throughout your lifetime.

I believe individuals, along with society in general, would benefit immensely if we proactively provided instruction at school to instill a sense of empathy in youngsters at the earliest age levels, continuing through the teenage years and on into college. Laying the groundwork for understanding and cooperation would not only be an immeasurable social improvement but would also pay off significantly in terms of future economic productivity. Every social strata would gain, but especially the less affluent, inner city youths whose circumstances often lead to the apathy and violence that can result in a lifetime of lawlessness and marginalization. How can you be empathetic and join a gang or gravitate to a life of crime and hatred?

It only makes sense to teach children empathy at a young, impressionable age when that deep well of human compassion is wide open to an understanding of others. Classes would be age appropriate for each group; starting in kindergarten, children would engage in role playing activities to instill good behavior, understand individual differences, promote sharing, and foster civility. Topics like the negative impact of selfishness or the consequences of bullying would be clearly spelled out and emphasize responsibility and respect for each other. The subject matter would become increasingly more complex through grade school and be geared to understanding the diversity of the world while developing good relationships with teachers, classmates, siblings and parents.

High school is a tumultuous time when there are countless issues to be addressed and young people need direction more than ever. Puberty, peer pressure, cliques, dating, sex, drugs, drinking and driving – these are all examples of difficult subjects that require discussion and role playing so that teenagers can fully understand the problems and also see the consequences of their actions.

Those at the college level would benefit from classes that teach cooperation and people management skills, regardless of their major or focus of interest. While this type of training is essential to improving business skills, everyone, in every walk of life or profession, needs the ability to understand and communicate with others as effectively as possible.

My own experiences convinced me of the benefits of acquiring a strong sense of empathy. I grew up in a time when children were supposed to be seen and not heard - relating to other people’s feelings was not a priority and often shunned as “touchy-feely” nonsense. I did have a caring family and got a reasonably good education, but I was not naturally instilled with an appreciation for others. While my character flaws were generally held in check through discipline from parents and teachers, I still grew up a little more focused on myself and less on other people than I might have been.

I did learn that if I wanted something I had to earn it, so as a teenager I got a job at a local department store. I stayed there all through high school and worked full time after graduation. I performed so well that the company promoted me to hardware department manager. I was only eighteen and thought I had this work thing down pat, but I had no experience at all in supervising people and, as any manager will tell you, that’s the hardest part of the job.

I was very naïve, thinking the crew would be eager to take direction from me simply because I was the boss. I was overbearing and inconsiderate – it wasn’t long before the employees rebelled and threatened to go to the store manager and complain. The last thing I wanted was to look like I didn’t know what I was doing and it was apparent that getting angry and raising my voice was not only useless but made me look like a fool. I made a significant effort to be less abrasive and learn to compromise, earning enough confidence over time to maintain a relatively smooth operation before I was ready to move on and try something else.

Over the next few years I had various jobs in construction, manufacturing, and the restaurant business. As in many industries, if you were responsible and good at your job it often led to a supervisory position, regardless of whether you were qualified to be a manager. I got promoted this way a few times but without the ability to motivate people to be productive and satisfied at work I just managed defensively and tried to avoid any major pitfalls. I finally decided I wanted to improve my situation so I went back to school to get a degree in Business Administration. College was a great learning experience and, hands down, the best decision of my life. My only complaint is that the management classes were more focused on the mechanical aspects of running a business rather than manager/employee relationships, so they didn’t really help improve my supervisory skills.

After graduation I was hired as a financial analyst for a major aerospace corporation and I thought that in this professional setting I’d see a difference in the way people were promoted and managed, but that generally wasn’t the case. Aside from one or two exceptions, most managers had average to poor people skills, even at the highest levels of the company. Just like in my previous jobs, people became managers based on a mastery of their current responsibilities, with or without any prior supervisory skills. In the aerospace industry this was particularly evident since the work was extremely technical and the highly intelligent people that gravitated to scientific careers were often not the most adept at the social interaction required to direct and motivate employees.

The very few well liked and respected leaders really stood out from the crowd and set a tone of excellence that inspired others to do their best. Their sincerity, approachability, and fairness created a calm and harmonious workplace conducive to productivity and performance rather than fear and emotional drama. They created a strong and lasting personal bond that motivated people to perform and achieve results beyond the benefits of salary or other recompense, giving rise to a tide that carried everyone to the top. They understood Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy that wisdom has to grow with power and teach us that the less we use power, the greater it will be.

I was eventually promoted to management and for the first time I had to learn to perform well in a complex environment that required a complete team effort. I needed to interact well with employees, keep them interested in the work, and support their career goals if I wanted to be successful at my job and be the kind of leader I admired in others. I struggled at first, but thankfully my company realized that people skills could be dramatically improved with special training and that the potential increase in productivity was worth the expense. All managers were assigned to attend ongoing seminars hosted by experts who combined business acumen, psychological expertise, and plain common sense to teach the art of understanding and managing people.

The sessions were usually several days long and designed to really immerse and involve the participants. We did hands on exercises acting out common management issues with each individual playing multiple roles so they could see all sides of potential problems and the best ways to resolve them. We watched videos showing professional actors playing out management scenarios that conveyed clearly, and sometimes humorously, the consequences of bad management techniques.

In one simple exercise a message was individually relayed through several people to see how similar the final version was to the original. Of course they were dramatically different, proving that things hadn’t changed much since grade school. The point is that each individual has a unique mindset based on lifelong and daily experiences that influences how new information is interpreted, what facts are important, and what response is appropriate. This simple task illuminated how easy it is to misinterpret other people’s intentions or meaning and made me realize how difficult it is to truly communicate and transfer information from one person to another without some individual bias or point of view. Quintilian said that “One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand”. Recognizing this was key for me to become a much more open-minded and attentive listener and to strive for clarity and comprehension in my conversations and presentations.

Another seminar focused entirely on the four distinct personality types and their general characteristics, both good and bad, as described by the Merrill-Reid method:

Driver –High energy, hardworking, focused, forceful, sometimes tactless and brusque

Expressive –Competitive, enthusiastic, talkative, may tend to exaggerate and procrastinate

Amiable –Kind hearted, soft spoken, sensitive, avoids conflict, might be indecisive and unsure

Analytical –Highly detailed, systematic, perceptive, can be critical and pessimistic in nature

We all took tests to determine our types and I was identified as a “Driver” with some “Analytical” traits. What really amazed me was that the work habits and patterns of behavior of the other types were so completely different from my own but were intrinsic and predictable tendencies. This psychological knowledge was crucial in helping me recognize different personalities, allocate work more appropriately, and analyze performance with an open mind.

Gaining a new appreciation for others also allowed me to open up and broaden the lines of communication with all my employees which, in turn, led to a much deeper understanding and respect for each individual’s talents and contributions. I was able to see that every person has a unique perspective that contributes to the success of the group, no matter what their position or background. I was finally able to take on the true role of a manager by encouraging and developing these valuable resources with an increased sense of empathy. I was able to see that the employees didn’t really work for me, I worked for them.

The management seminars were extremely successful throughout the company at improving management/employee relationships, reducing personnel conflict, and thus maximizing productivity. Looking back it’s easy to see that the real driving force in business success is the ability to communicate effectively that empathy provides. While technical skills are obviously a fundamental requirement, they are not a guarantee of success. If two people have equal scientific expertise but one is more socially adept, the people person will surely be more successful in terms of career advancement. He or she would also more likely be the kind of manager all of us want to work for - fair, personable, understanding, successful – you’d do anything they ask and follow them anywhere.

I’ve learned that people of every age can improve their level of understanding to help eliminate the differences that people perceive in others and overcome prejudice and hatred in all its myriad forms. Instilling this concept in the hearts and souls of the young would pay strong dividends as children grow into teenagers and adults. Teaching empathy should be an ongoing process for everyone, from grade school to college and all throughout life. There is no downside to being gracious – you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. As Marian Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, said, “Being considerate of others will take your children further in life than any college degree”.

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    • serenityjmiller profile image

      Serenity Miller 2 years ago from Brookings, SD

      Lovely, well-written topic - thank you for sharing! Empathy is an essential ingredient of servant-leadership, which is gaining ground among many respectable organizations as a most effective teambuilding style. Regardless of the setting, any relationship or interaction can benefit from the practice of this virtue.

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