EMPATHY: What is it, anyway?

May 15, 2013 - 23:57 -- Dr. Ada


Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others. It’s more than simple sympathy, which is being able to understand and support others with compassion or sensitivity. Empathy is fundamental to leadership, as many leadership theories suggest.

Empathy is also fundamental for ethical behavior. Many of the ethical issues we are facing today are partly due to insensitivity to others. If you can't experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of others, you'll have no idea of the harm you cause them with non-ethical behaviors.

The Center for Creative Leadership did a study with data from 6,731 managers from 38 countries. Their study found that the ability to understand what others are feeling is a skill that clearly contributes to effective leadership. In some cultures, the connection between empathy and performance is particularly striking, placing an even greater value on empathy as a leadership skill.

The findings were consistent across the sample: empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.

I was reading today what Beth Dolley, from Skillin Elementary School wrote about their challenge to explain and teach empathy to children. It made me think of the challenge I sometimes face in helping leaders understand the importance of empathy

Do you understand empathy at least at a second grade level? After many discussions and a lot of hands-on practice, the children of Skillin Elementary were asked to explain empathy. Here are some of the definitions written by the second graders.

  • Empathy is noticing other people’s feelings. Like if you noticed someone who was sad, mad or glad that would be empathy.
  • When I saw my friend fall, I saw that she felt sad and I helped her up and went with her to the nurse.
  • When you help friends when they’re feeling “froshgratid” (frustrated)
  • Empathy means that you care about what someone is doing or saying kind of like respect. Saying empathy means “I care”. That’s what empathy means.
  • My mom had empathy. She was mad cause she could not read a book.
  • Empathy is when you’re not mean to people. You need to be nice. If you’re nice to people, they will be nice back to you. And empathy means to listen.
  • Empathy is when people care about what you have to say. Like when I was trying to talk to my sister but when I talked, she kept on saying “Blah, blah.” So I told her to be nice and she did.
  • If somebody is having a bad day, they could be spreading a circle that’s the opposite of empathy. And they wouldn’t even know it. But what empathy is is that someone stops the circle. Here’s how: if someone wants to have a good day and they don’t care [about the bad feelings] then they will have a great day.
  • Empathy is when someone frowns. And you go up to them and say I’ll help you find your classroom or say I’m sorry for having a bad day for you. If you see someone sad you should go see them and cheer them up.
  • When someone sees what you are feeling.

Remember. . .

Empathy is fundamental to leadership. If you can practice empathy at least at the level these second graders describe it, you’ll be a great leader!

Do you practice Empathy? Do you create opportunities to listen and care for your people? Do you need to be more empathetic but haven't be able to do it on your own? What can you gain by putting off making changes? Nothing! You can't afford to lose more valuable time and opportunities. Contact me today for a free, no obligation interview to decide how can I help you.

Photo by: JuditK