empathyEmpathy increases our ability to step outside ourselves. Using empathy, we learn to listen to through someone else’s ears, look through someone else’s eyes and respond with someone else’s responses.  Inside the company, practicing empathy helps employees view and respect each other as essential components of the business’ process.  Empathy opens up both horizontal and vertical conversations; cross-departmental collaboration is easier. Creative solutions for the organizational dilemmas become easier because employees are able to foresee their colleagues’ responses and empathize with how modifications will affect each other.

Within an organization, empathy increases profitability because colleagues have open lines for collaboration with each other and explore how initiatives affect an organization department-wide, not just their own corner of the building.  Using empathy outside an organization also increases profitability.  Empathy puts you in your clients’ shoes, making it easier to predict services your clients need.  Take Steve Jobs, for example.  He did not use focus groups to determine how he would innovate, he watched people use his products to see what modifications he needed to make and he watched ordinary people, not focus groups or employees grappled with information technology to determine what new platforms to launch.  Empathy gives people an intuitive vibe about the social directions around them, putting them a step up above those who wait for what analysts and trends forecasters tell them and, at the same time, their competition how to move.

Why should organizations pinpoint development of empathy as a key skill for employees and management?  After all, aren’t we all hard-wired for empathy? Are there that many people who are so hard-hearted that they do not see the world around them and not want positive actions in poor situations?  Well, it turns out that entrepreneurs are not as attuned to empathy as they are to other qualities.  An April 2013 Harvard Business Review blog entitled “The Skills Most Entrepreneurs Lack” summarized Target Training International, Ltd.’s study of the traits of serial entrepreneurs. The study contrasted the soft skills traits of entrepreneurs to the soft skill traits of a control group of 17,000 working adults.  Persuasion, leadership and personal accountability scored much higher than the average while empathy scored much lower than the average. This doesn’t suggest that entrepreneurs do not have empathy; it suggests that they honed their innate abilities of persuasion and leadership while leaving empathy more on the intellectual level than a skill that is developed for everyday use.  The authors believe that entrepreneurs perceive their empathy through producing a product or service which they will receive a return on the investment; whereas everyday empathy does not work on a tit-for-tat return of effort for profit.

One’s empathy skill can be elevated through training as Pamela Hartigan, Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Said Business School, Oxford England substantiated in her July blog in the Huffington Post.  She recounts Mary Gordon’s successful program, Roots of Empathy, which uses class group observation of and interaction with an infant over a period of a year as a springboard for learning how to read emotions through body language and talk about emotions with a group of people.  The results of the program are lasting increases in sharing/inclusive/helping behavior and an increase in emotional perception. Empathy can be taught and it can stick and develop through the years.

Empathy, by its very definition, requires becoming part of an experience and sharing the feeling of that experience, which Roots of Empathy walks the classes through.  But Hartigan warns that our ability to develop a high level of empathy is being thwarted by use of technology as a prime means of social connection. Timothy Askew, Founder and CEO of Corporate Rain International, seconds her statements in a blog written in direct response to the April 2013 Harvard Business Review blog examined earlier.  Here Askew is writing to everyone, not just entrepreneurs, when he illustrates how technology allows us to remain embedded in our own community – that is those with whom we share thoughts over social media or debate within specified audience targeted on-line magazines.  Using mainly technology to become part of an experience or share the feeling of that experience negates one of the primary principles of empathy, i.e. to learn how to walk in another person’s shoes, you need to physically feel that person as real, not virtual.  The Roots of Empathy program that Hartigan describes uses real infants and real people interacting with the infants, not a group discussion following a video showing a mother interacting with her infant.  Askew ends with the question, “How do you serve a client or a customer well without listening for the nuance of his needs?”  Or, going back to the title of the blog, how can you be wired for profitability when you are not wired for empathy?