I get tired of hearing about “soft skills,” even when it’s acknowledged they are important. No less a hard-muscled body than the U.S. Army, in its Army Field Manual on Leader Development (one of the best resource on leadership I’ve ever seen) insists repeatedly that empathy is essential for competent leadership.
Why? Empathy enables you to know if the people you’re trying to reach are actually reached. It allows you to predict the effect your decisions and actions will have on core audiences and strategize accordingly. Without empathy, you can’t build a team or nurture a new generation of leaders. You will not inspire followers or elicit loyalty. Empathy is essential in negotiations and sales: it allows you to know your target’s desires and what risks they are or aren’t willing to take.
Elsewhere I’ve proposed a short list of 5 essential cognitive capacities and personality traits that every leader who assumes great responsibility must have. Empathy is one of the core five. (The others are self-awareness, trust, critical thinking and discipline/self-control.)
Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective and feelings. Also called “vicarious introspection,” it’s commonly described as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. But make sure you are assessing how they would feel in their shoes, not how you would feel in their shoes. This is the tricky part.
I remember my husband taking me cross-country skiing for the first time early in our marriage. He was sure (putting himself in my shoes) that I would love the sport as much as he did. From the minute the skis were strapped on me, I absolutely hated it. Being generally clumsy and lacking good balance, the sensation of non-stop instability was anything but fun for me—in fact, it made me miserable. My husband kept insisting I would love it if I just gave it a chance. Naturally athletic and graceful, he couldn’t imagine the experience I was having in my shoes—now strapped tightly to long slippery sticks! It took years for me to convince him that my experience on cross country skis was utterly different from his. Fortunately, I discovered the pleasure of tramping around on snowshoes. The solidity and certainty gave me a chance to enjoy winter woods while he continued to enjoy sliding around on icy snow.
Like the practice of self-awareness, empathy involves scanning large sets of data, sorting out what’s noise and what’s essential information. The process is not so different from what a stock analyst does when scanning the market and looking for signals, anomalies and novel patterns that jump out and make him take notice, realizing something important is going on.
There is a significant business cost when leaders lack empathy. Just ask United Airlines which earned the dishonor of having committed “one of the worst corporate gaffes” ever, according to Bloomberg’s Christopher Palmeri and Jeff Green, when a physician was dragged off a plane to empty his paid seat for an employee. It took United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, three tries before his public response showed any empathy. Munoz’s first and woefully inadequate statement, “I apologized for having to re-accommodate these customers,” seriously missed the mark in attempting to relate to his customer’s experience. In his second statement, Munoz compounded the error by blaming the victim—describing the passenger as defiant, belligerent and disruptive. Only with his third try, when Munoz said, “I promise you we will do better,” did he demonstrate an empathic understanding of his current and future customers.
Lack of empathy is a major contributor to the tsunami of sexual harassment incidents that have dominated recent news and led to the departures of accomplished leaders. Commenting on an employee’s body or, worse, grabbing her, requires a failure of empathy. If a boss were able and willing to put himself in the employee’s shoes and understand how she would feel when subjected to his actions, he would be far less likely to do what he’s doing.
Can empathy be learned? To some degree. The capacity for empathy is an innate human trait, and like all of these, there is a spectrum of strength and weakness. Some people are more naturally gifted at quickly sensing other peoples’ experience. In fact, some of my clients have to be taught to put up an “empathic wall”—too much awareness of other peoples’ feelings cripples their ability to make decisions that lead to disappointment or bad feelings.
Very successful business leaders are often extremely fast information processors. With my clients who do not “suffer fools gladly,” I recommend taking a moment to deploy a bit of empathy—what’s behind a colleague’s wish to propose what immediately looks like a dumb idea? Follow with an empathic comment along the lines of “I can see why you got excited about that because it’s an important issue, but unfortunately it would raise compliance problems so we can’t pursue that route.” A 90-second investment of time can prevent the employee’s feeling humiliated and disaffected in the long-term.
If you’re naturally low on the empathy scale, at least know you have this deficiency and that there is a cost to it. You can learn to check yourself and do what does not come naturally: before you act, school yourself to think of the people who will be affected and what your action will mean to them. And try to remember to not just recognize but care about that impact on others. You can also make sure you have a trusted advisor who fills in the gap in your skillset. That advisor must be empowered to stop you if you’re forgetting that there are other people in the world and that their feelings and agendas are not the same as yours—and that these matter.
Whatever your natural endowment for empathy, your capacity for empathy and skill at deploying it waxes and wanes with your own physical and mental state. If you’re ill or tired, it’s hard to have empathy for anyone but yourself. If you’re in the throes of creative excitement, it’s disruptive to consider the perspective of others. And that’s fine, as long as it doesn’t last too long and you know to check back in with the human beings around you.
Don’t confuse empathy with making people happy or being nice. Sometimes you’ll suss out another’s perspective and feelings and purposefully ignore them. Or even use it to gain an advantage. Essentially empathy is a neutral data gathering tool that enables you to understand the human environment within which you are operating in business and therefore make better predictions, craft better tactics, inspire loyalty and communicate clearly.