Empathy has an evil twin. It’s called narcissism and there’s a lot of it about in the C-suite. The narcissist boss is a familiar phenomenon. He or she’s the one whose self-belief typically exceeds their abilities and whose equilibrium hinges on flattery and recognition. In short, it’s all about them.
For a long time it was the narcissists who got most of the office airtime, not least because they’re intrusive and demanding. But now it seems the spotlight has shifted to empathetic bosses who are a big plus when it comes to retaining staff and attracting talent.
There is ample evidence that shows people like working for bosses and organisations that demonstrate empathy. It motivates and improves productivity. And, needless to say, big business is never going to turn its back on a trend that might improve the bottom line.
This has spawned something of an industry, with empathy now showing up on corporate training agendas and management consultants adding “empathy audits” to their list of services.
So what might an empathy audit include? Analysing email and specifically BCCs for one. Apparently the higher the volume of BCCs, the lower the trust in an organisation and this undermines empathy.
It makes perfect sense that an organisation that is on its workforce's wavelength is more likely to have engaged employees who want to stay. US company Businesssolver (which specialises in employee benefits administration technology) has been running an empathy survey for the last three years. In its executive summary, it says: "The long-term payoff of empathy, we've found, isn't just a happier employee or satisfied customer – it's a stronger, more engaged workforce and, ultimately, a healthier, more robust business."
Great untapped labour resource
Its findings show a significant gender gap in how empathy in organisations is perceived. Only a third of women view organisations as empathetic compared with 70 per cent of men. Not a good result in a business environment that’s constantly emphasising how much diversity matters and where women are the great untapped labour resource.
Furtheremore, if empathy and engagement go hand in hand, the fact that only 13 per cent of employees worldwide fell engaged at work, according to the 2017 Gallup State of the Global Workplace report, should be a cause for concern. Gallup puts the cost of this disengagement at approximately $7 trillion in lost productivity.
"Eighteen per cent are actively disengaged in their work and workplace, while 67 per cent are 'not engaged'. This last group makes up the majority of the workforce. They are not your worst performers, but they are indifferent to your organsation," says Gallup's Dr Jim Harter.
Michael Banissy is a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths College at the University of London. His research focuses on how people perceive, interpret and interact with others, and empathy is one of his particular interests. "If you want to think about the ingredients that play a key role in the functioning of high-performing teams, having empathic skills can be one of the things that can help to facilitate those types of processes," he told The Irish Times.
“When it comes to innovation, this idea of having more of a growth mindset and a willingness to learn from your mistakes is important. So being able to take different perspectives can be useful.
“Diversity is important for high performance teams as is being able to factor in the perspectives of other people so, in terms of being relevant to business, then, absolutely, empathy is important. Would I say that empathy is a magic bullet? Probably not. It’s one of several factors that will help create a better team and better performance.”
According to the research, there seems to be a gender bias when it comes to empathy (although it depends on the assessment criteria) with women showing higher levels of empathy than men. If this imbalance is to be addressed, can empathy be taught?
“There is some evidence to suggest it can and some tools to do so by training different responses,” Banissy says. “For example, you can train someone’s ability to be better able to control how much they take [on board] the perspective of other people – or not. In studies this has been shown to lead to an increase in empathy.”
Also being used to train people in empathy is VR (virtual reality), with organisations such as the United Nations embracing the technology to help people put themselves in the shoes of others and "feel" what life is like – in a war zone, for example.
“The key question you have to ask when training cognitive skills is how generalisable are those effects?” Banissy says. “Just because we train someone and they show an improvement in that task, how does that apply to other tasks, and to how they behave outside the lab? So yes, you can train empathy, but the extent of the impact outside the lab setting is still being investigated.”
Banissy cautions against being too quick to assume that a perceived empathy deficit in an organisation is easy to fix. Empathy is complex, not least because it depends on how it’s defined, the distinction made between cognitive and affective empathy and where individuals already are on the empathy scale.
“You can boost empathy with certain interventions but it doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate into every situation,” he says. “We usually hear results in terms of group averages but they can vary widely between individuals for any number of reasons.”