We need more empathy in the workplace

Julia Rampen DiversityQ columnist

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman and a former financial journalist.

In this weeks column, Julia Rampen looks at why we need more empathy in the workplace and why the answer isn’t simply more women.

“You’ve uncovered the fact I’m an asshole”

Steve Jobs was – famously – didn’t have very much empathy in the workplace. “You’ve uncovered the fact I’m an asshole,” the late Apple boss told an editor in 2008. “Why is that news?” Jobs was rude to his business partners, ruthless in cutting out former colleagues and so unwilling to listen to his development team that they resorted to hiding the engineer they secretly hired after he refused to sign off on the idea.

But think of Jobs another way. He was not actually a brilliant engineer, and he spent several episodes of his career in disgrace. What redeemed him was his insight into what consumers actually wanted. At a time when Mp3 players looked confusing to anyone non-technical, Jobs insisted that the iPod should give users what they wanted in three clicks or less. You could call that perfectionism or the legacy of his interest in simplicity. You could also call it a rare streak of empathy.

When I first read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, I concluded he was successful because of the first set of traits. But after attending the Ada Lovelace conference, for women in tech, I revised my opinion. One after another, start-up founders stood up and described the challenges of turning a cool idea into a company. And a lot of them were to do with people management.

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Empathy in the workplace

A founder of a venture capitalist firm explained how the founders’ whole plan was to get a better return on their investments by advising start-ups on creating a great organisation – but failed to fully address their own flaws as their company started to grow. Then there was Emily Tate, the US general manager of Mind the Product. She explained how she wanted to stay above what she thought of as office politics. “Over time what I have realised is stakeholder management isn’t office politics, it is having empathy in the workplace,” she told an audience of entrepreneurs and techies.

Empathy is undervalued. A study of 6,731 managers by the Center for Creative Leadership found that managers whose subordinates rated them more empathetic were also higher rated by their own boss. Yet the “e” in STEM does not stand for empathy. You will not get UCAS points or endorsements on LinkedIn. And woe betides the job applicant who puts “thinking about others” as a key skill on their CV.

Perhaps it would be less undervalued if we understood it better. I long confused empathy with sympathy, which means sharing care and concern for someone – an emotion with the implicit assumption that you are better off, which might seem patronising in your social life and downright infuriating at work (why should I be the one feeling sorry for them?) Empathy means seeing the situation through someone else’s eyes, and then experiencing the consequent emotions.

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Are women more empathetic?

I will also put my hands up and admit that for a long time I also associated empathy with being weak. But as Chad Fowler outlines in an excellent blog post, empathy done well is a discipline: it’s not easy to side with your own enemy. Empathy done badly, where we identify more with people who resemble us, happens all the time – it’s called the Old Boy’s Club. And consider this: brain studies suggest even psychopaths can switch on empathy when they want to.

If well-honed empathy helps smooth office politics, then how do we get more of it? Cue the standard answer: recruit more women. This is an oversimplistic response, as the problems of women tech founders should suggest. The latest genetic research suggests that women are not particularly hardwired to be more empathetic, and the jury is out on the impact of hormones.

What we do know is that from birth, parents train children to empathise with others, and traditionally boys and girls have been treated differently. From baby dolls for Christmas to the fact that in 1984, when many of today’s managers were children, half of Brits thought women’s main role should be to “look after the home and the family”, girls have been taught they are supposed to think about how others feel.

As most women will tell you after the second glass of wine, this informal empathy training is flawed. Too often, they find themselves performing “emotional labour” in the workplace – anticipating and taking responsibility for other people’s sensitivities. But the bigger point is: this behaviour is learned. In theory, employers can teach workers of all genders to practice greater empathy, in a way that doesn’t lump all responsibility for birthday cakes and leaving cards on the token female employee.

Making it relevant

The biggest challenge for employers seeking more empathy in the workplace will be how to introduce the concept. In the same way that “diversity training” is too often meted as out as a punishment for errant politicians, empathy training can be easy to joke about.

One strategy is to make it relevant to careers. How many times do pay rise discussions revolve around examples of workers putting themselves in other people’s shoes? So call it what it is. Understanding another person’s point of view. Getting better at managing your stakeholders. Being able to successfully read an inscrutable clients’ face (discover your own ability with the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test). Sticking inspirational quotes about “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” on the wall.

“Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places,” JK Rowling said in her 2008 address to Harvard graduates. The Harry Potter author went on to describe the ability to imagine another individual’s perspective as a power akin to magic.

Of course, being able to see through someone else’s eyes doesn’t always mean that you have 20-20 vision. There are, of course, limits to being empathetic: even the most loving parent will not buy their child endless sweets, and most of us would prefer to leave empathising with murderers to their lawyers. In such cases, Tate recommends asking the person in question: “Help me to understand why this upset you” (spoiler alert: they usually can’t answer). After all, for all the empathy in the world: “Some people are just jerks.”

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