Before he became the president of the United States, Mr Barack Obama made numerous speeches on the subject of empathy. From his perspective, “the biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit”.
While it may not have hogged the headlines, the Scientific American — the oldest continuously published magazine in the US — reported that empathy levels had been declining over the past 30 years.
Separately, a business study reported in the Harvard Business Review singled out empathy as a quality that entrepreneurs sorely lacked.
In his book Wired To Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, Dave Patnaik lamented that the problem with business today isn’t a lack of innovation but a lack of empathy.
Recognition of the empathy deficit is gaining traction. Opinion leaders, social science researchers and politicians in different parts of the world are adding their concerned voices to a rising chorus.
What is empathy?
Many of us are cognitively familiar with the concept of empathy as being able to understand another person by standing in their shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. For those new to the concept, science assures us that we are affectively wired to demonstrate empathy.
Why is empathy important?
It helps us understand our fellow human beings through perspective-taking. Empathy at home nurtures strong family ties. At the workplace, empathy provides the foundation for leadership, teamwork and innovation.
Having empathy makes us a kinder society and determines how quickly we identify, and understand and solve problems.
The empathy deficit
Where do we start to understand the empathy deficit? Daniel Goleman, the author of best-selling books on emotional intelligence and an authority on psychology and the brain sciences, offers a starting point.
He says: “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy.”
Reflect for a moment on our daily human interactions. It really is not too difficult to see self-absorption on full display in schools, organisations, on public transport and in public spaces.
An excerpt from an article on The Guardian’s website of a banker’s experience at her workplace in the United Kingdom illustrates how we can lose the ability to empathise:
“My frustrations were at the tip of my nose. I was permanently stressed, and this carried over to the rest of my life: the chocolate getting stuck in the vending machine, the taxi showing up late, being stranded in traffic — it took very little to provoke a reaction. You have to be fast and on the edge and alert all the time in your work, and you begin to expect the same instant gratification from the rest of the world.
“Then there’s the gradual loss of the ability to empathise. There are people out there with far greater problems than bankers. It helps if you can see that, but somehow people in investment banks lose touch with reality.”
Are we, in Singapore, gradually losing the ability to empathise too? Here are two areas where we should try to increase our empathy quotient — doing so not only makes life more pleasant but more successful too:
An empathic business enterprise is driven by a deep understanding of customer needs and a strong desire to meet those needs — not by an obsession with the bottom line.
When businesses do this well, they can expect their customers to rave over the products and services that they thoughtfully create. Their customers will be fiercely loyal and not think of leaving for the competition.
Armed with a deep understanding of their customers’ needs, an empathic business enterprise will see opportunities ahead of their competitors. Empathy for customers fuels the long-term sustainability of the business enterprise.
An empathic employer will be a magnet for employees who strive for meaning in their work. Empathic leaders and managers make it their priority to understand the needs of employees and then find practical ways of meeting these needs.
They know that when they do this well, their employees will begin to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves.
Widespread empathy within the organisation eventually creates what Patnaik calls an Open Empathy Organisation where employees are able to see the link between the products and services they create and the people who use them.
Open empathy organisations will always have a future to look forward to.
Article by K.V. Deepthi S., an associate in an educational institution. She guides organisations on how to embrace empathy as the starting point for organisational change and innovation. For more information, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org