Are you suffering from empathy erosion?
Whether you are naturally empathetic or not, today’s highly competitive and digitized world is working steadily against your ability to see the world through others’ eyes and to understand their unique perspectives.
The problems this can cause for you both personally and professionally are enormous.
- The ability to relate well with others
- The ability to build trust
- The power to persuade and influence
Empathy erosion, however, isn’t easily detectable until it reaches a point of danger.
Are you there? If so, your ability to lead has been compromised.
Where are you on the “empathy scale”?
And what can you do about it?
Empathy is a foundational part of emotional intelligence, allowing us to respond appropriately and to develop deep levels of rapport and trust. It is closely connected to cultural competence, which allows us to connect and relate well with people of other cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds.
We are wired to experience empathy. At birth, there are also other factors that go into helping us to develop this as we mature. When we possess a fair amount of empathy, and we see someone in pain or feeling happy, we can, to a certain extent, experience the same. You might see this ability to feel or intuit others’ emotions as a sort of “neural Wi-Fi” that allows us to connect with the feelings of others around us.
Empathy is key to leadership success. The ability to persuade and inspire others, to make things happen through influence, rather than through pressure and duress are all contingent on possessing a high level of empathy.
The problem with empathy, however, is that you must practice it to keep it. And in a rapidly-changing, ever-evolving business world we are seeing signs of empathy “erosion.”
Poor communication and conflict are on the rise, as technology replaces the need for meaningful connection.
Inside company walls, a lack of empathy means that highly-skilled leaders and managers can be abrasive and out of touch with their workforce as they attempt to meet demands at a rapid pace. Further, a recent study at the University of Southern California shows that the growing lack of empathy is not evenly distributed; that “…middle management and senior executives are showing the biggest deficit in empathy – the very people who need it most because their actions affect such large numbers of people” (Ernest J. Wilson III, “Empathy is Still Lacking in the Leaders Who Need It,” Harvard Business Review).
With this phenomenon, coworkers struggle to build trust with one another, and to be inclusive in process and decision-making – especially as many are coming from different generations and cultures. This means a workplace that is high in conflict and other poor workplace behaviors, and low on collaboration, morale, engagement, and productivity.
Outside company walls, it is empathy that can make the difference from the competition, as we read more effectively the pulse on customer demand and have a greater ability to cultivate deeper and more effective relationships with them. It is empathy that allows more successful expansion as we negotiate presence and activity in other cultures and countries.
Indeed, in a world where we seek connection, meaning, and contribution more than ever before, empathy must be intentionally practiced.
But where do you start?
How do you go about strengthening your own level of empathy?
A first step is to make friends with emotions – and get back in touch with your own.
Emotions are not good or bad – they just are. They are triggers tied to past experiences and serve to tell you to pay attention to the situation at hand. But if you are like most, you have learned to shut down emotions that make you uncomfortable so that you can continue to operate at high speed. The thing about emotions is that if you ignore them, they will build up and erupt somewhere at some time when you least expect it – and most often, inappropriately. When this happens, frustration and stress can mount and nothing is resolved.
To normalize this dynamic, it is necessary to first tap back into how you feel so that you become comfortable with emotions as they occur. When I work with clients on raising their empathy quotient, we begin with a list of positive and negative emotions. I ask them to set their alarm three times daily and when the alarm sounds, to stop, look at the list, identify the emotion they are feeling, and write it down. Record the time of day, the emotion felt, and the situation to which it was connected. If you do this, you will begin to expand your repertoire of recognizable emotions, to note what triggers them, and to accept them as part of you.
Once you begin to get back in touch with emotions and to spot them in others, you can then start to acknowledge others’ emotions so that they feel heard.
This is paramount to building bonds and the beginning of greater trust. As you tune in and expand your own repertoire of emotions, pay attention to the spoken and body language of others. Validating the feelings of others allows them to feel understood as human beings.
An example might be if someone comes in to your office saying, “I’m really frustrated about that project!” This is your cue to refrain from jumping in to try and fix or to ask questions. Instead, acknowledge their emotion, first – something like, “I’m sorry that you are frustrated. That’s no fun!” Wait for the other person to take this in. Give them the space to expound on this. Your acknowledgment of how they are feeling tells them that you have heard or recognized their emotions as valid. They feel “seen” as a human being.
Another example might be if you see someone looking puzzled, you can stop the conversation and say, “Hey, you look puzzled…” This demonstrates to the other person that you notice and care for the way they feel. This can open the door to better, more meaningful discussion. It also allows you to learn if your impression of how the other person was feeling was correct, helping you to further fine-tune your radar for reading the emotions of others.
By 2030, 850,000 jobs will be replaced by automation. Many are asking how they can remain valid in a world that is shifting at such a pace.
Here’s what we know:
A machine cannot replace human connection. It cannot supply meaning or purpose. A machine does not have the capability to build bonds and trust. It cannot persuade, influence, or lead in a way that inspires others to follow.
This can only be accomplished by humans who care.
How’s your empathy quotient?
Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.