I read something today that really peaked my interest. I have been fortunate enough to have an advance copy of Dr Steven Stein’s new book, The EQ Leader. Having been asked just the other day what I would recommend as strategies for improving empathy in leaders, I thought I would review the section on Empathy: What Can We Do About It?
Dr Stein quotes studies by Christine Ma-Kellams of the University of Laverne and Jennifer Lerner at Harvard University which are intriguing. In a nutshell (because you will have to read the book for all the details) the researchers demonstrate that by using a reasoning approach, you could get better results in understanding someone else’s emotions than by just using intuition (Steven J. Stein, 2017). That’s right. You can use your cognitive abilities to work through what is happening for someone else, or what their perspective might be.
So why do I consider this the ‘frightening’ truth about Empathy? Because it should scare all of those people who believe that empathy is something you either fundamentally have, or don’t have. Many leaders I talk to feel that some people are just more naturally empathetic than others. This allows them to ‘not’ be empathetic. It lets them off the hook so to speak.
The truth is that some people just enjoy other people more than others and this provides them with more of an impetus to BE empathetic. It doesn’t mean they are born with it, or naturally more capable. Unfortunately for those who would like to believe that it is a natural talent, it is something that is sought after. That is, direct reports perceive a link between empathy and improved leadership performance. If you are a leader, your team is looking for you to demonstrate empathy and will consider it when they evaluate your leadership performance.
What we can be assured of from the studies and Dr Stein’s insight, is that empathy is a skill that can be increased through targeted development, coaching and initiatives. Everyone can become more empathetic. Which makes me think of that old joke.
How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?
One, but the lightbulb has to want to change.