Is Empathy Dead? How Your Lack Of Empathy Damages Your Reputation And Impact As A Leader

Is Empathy Dead? How Your Lack Of Empathy Damages Your Reputation And Impact As A Leader

September 2016


Ever since I studied renowned humanist psychologist Carl Rogers’ groundbreaking work on empathy during my Master’s degree program in Marriage and Family Therapy, I was deeply struck by the power of empathy to improve lives, build meaningful connections, and develop leaders.

In my executive coaching work too, I see that empathy is something that we humans today vaguely understand is important, but very few of us have been trained or taught how to cultivate empathy in our lives and work as a daily practice.

To learn more about the impact of empathy on leadership, I was excited to connect with Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Development Dimensions International (DDI). An expert on leadership development, employee engagement and talent management, Rich is one of the authors of DDI’s High-Resolution Leadership report and has written for more than 40 publications and published six books including, Your First Leadership Job, with coauthor, Tacy Byham. He has delivered more than 100 presentations at professional conferences around the world, and is a judge for CNBC’s Asian Business Leader’s Award.

Rich shares below his views on empathy and how it impacts leadership.

Kathy Caprino: Why is empathy so important to leadership?

Richard Wellins: While there are many definitions of leadership, one way we look at it is the ability to have successful conversations with others: up, down, sideways, inside and outside the organization. In a recent class I taught, the attendees, all leaders, said they had an average of six conversations a day lasting 10 or more minutes. Empathy, in turn, is the most important behavior in any conversation (leadership or otherwise). Empathy is really about being aware of, and even experiencing, the feelings and thoughts of others. It often involves taking on the perspective of those you are talking with. It is important to note that empathy is not just feeling. It needs to translate into verbal and non-verbal behavior so that the receiver feels your empathy. And it must be expressed in a way that is sincere and authentic.

In great part, the ability of a leader to empathize impacts employee engagement, retention, and performance. It is critical to good teamwork. It helps fuel customer-centric innovation. Our own research revealed that the correlation between empathy and leadership performance was stronger than any other skill.

Caprino: How are we doing as a society today in our empathic skills? Why is empathy on a decline?

Wellins: We feel it is in serious decline. Our own research shows that only four in six leaders are very good at empathy. More concerning, a study of college students by University of Michigan researchers showed a 34% to 48% decline in empathic skills, over an eight-year period. These students are our future leaders!

We feel there are two reasons that account for this decline. Organizations have heaped more and more on the plates of leaders, forcing them to limit face-to-face conversations. Again, DDI research revealed that leaders spend more time managing than they do “interacting.” They wish they could double their time spent interacting with others. The second reason falls squarely on the shoulders of technology, especially mobile smart devices. These devices have become the de rigueur for human interactions. Sherry Turkle, in her book, Reclaiming Conversation, calls them “sips of conversations.”

Empathy is uniquely human. It cannot be mastered without face-to-face conversations. In many ways, it is a sad state of affairs that emoticons have become the way we express our emotions. One recent major corporation laid off 400 people in a single day. How? Through email. Devoid of feelings and emotions. And a missed opportunity for leaders to really get in touch with the pain they were causing others. I was telling this story to my team when one member told me her daughter just dumped her boyfriend though a text message. He lived two blocks away. Face-to-face conversations take time, and they sometimes take courage. And unless you are Dr. Spock, they involve feelings. Have our younger generations learned to hide behind their iPhones?

Caprino: How can you tell if your empathy as a leader, manager and individual isn’t where it needs to be?

Wellins: We assess empathy all the time in our assessment processes. These processes are not survey based; rather they involve leaders participating in a variety of simulations in which they are required to display a wide range of leadership skills. We look for and evaluate empathy. In DDI’s research, only 40% of the frontline leaders we assessed were proficient in empathy. You might expect it gets better as leaders rise through the ranks. In fact, it gets worse.

There are several ways to determine your empathy levels. If you are employed by a larger organization you may be required to participate in a 360-degree survey evaluation. This is a fairly good measure because those that complete it (your team, boss, and peers) see you on a regular basis. You just need to be sure a measure of interpersonal skills is included.

Although formal performance appraisal processes have come under scrutiny, it is another way to gauge empathy (sadly, those conducting these appraisals often lack empathy themselves). There are various self-check tests online you can use to determine your levels of emotional intelligence and empathy . If you use one of these, you might consider asking others you interact with to use the same questions to evaluate your skills. DDI also offers courses to develop competencies around empathy skills as part of our assessment process. Another measure is employee engagement surveys, in use by many organizations. If your team scores are low, we would bet a lack of empathy is part of the problem. The final indicator is your own actual work performance. Team productivity low? High workplace conflict? Tough to move things forward?  These are all lag measures of an empathy deficit.

Caprino: What are five practical strategies we can employ to improve our empathy and connection?

Wellins: We view empathy as consisting of both disposition and behavior. By disposition, we’re referring to our belief that the ability to empathize is acquired early in life. We are not saying people are born with empathy. Rather personal experiences and the impact of family and friends can help shape one’s ability to empathize. So one thing an employer can do is interview or test for empathy levels before hiring. And, since we are talking about leaders, most internal promotions are made from within. A measure of the ability to empathize should be part of the criteria used for promotion. That being said, because empathy is a behavior, it can be learned.

One of the five key interaction principles we incorporate in our training is called “listen and respond with empathy.” Note that these are behaviors: You can observe listening and you can observe responses. Leaders who go through empathy training can get better. However, it takes a certain type of training. Like any skill or behavior, you need to be able to see positive and negative models of empathetic behavior. It is a continual learning process that does not happen in a single one-hour class. Try to look at it as learning to play golf, bowling, or any other sport or hobby. In our High-Resolution Leadership study that we just completed of some 15,000 leaders over 35 years, we have shown that our training leads to dramatic increases in leadership skills of which empathy was a part.

5 Critical Strategies We Suggest To Expand Your Range Of Empathy Are As Follows:

Assess It
Assess your degree of empathy either formally or through informal feedback. At work, leaders should ask others for specifics about quality of day-to-day interactions. Self-awareness is a starting point for improving empathy. By the way, seeking feedback or empathy should happen both within and outside the workplace.

Prioritize It
Make the ability to empathize a key criteria for promotion into a leadership position. Either through formal tests, or on the job observations, managers and HR alike need to put the ability to empathize into their promotion equation.

Focus On It
Include a focus on empathy in your leadership development programs. Empathy is a behavior that can be built and improved over time. There are online courses leaders can purchase and complete themselves. But a one-hour online course is unlikely to really do the trick. Caution: Like any skill, learning needs to include practice and expert feedback over time.

Balance It
Balance digital communications with face-to-face communications. Make the time to actually converse. Stop sending text messages to a colleague or team member three cubes away. Go over and talk. Put in place and enforce no mobile phones/laptop use policy during meetings. Some companies have associates leave their phones in a basket before sitting down for a meeting. It is amazing the difference in attention and dialogue. Face-to-face conversations require the ability to listen and the courage to give feedback without hiding behind a text message. It is the cornerstone to the creation of new ideas creating the opportunity to explore.

Look For New Ways
Look for opportunities to put yourself in other people’s shoes. One company had men walk around with heavy belts to simulate what it was like to be pregnant. That’s an extreme example, but there are many other ways. As an example, assume your company has a digital commerce site. Have you tried to use it to buy something to get a feel for the experience? Try doing one of the jobs of your employees for a few days. Spend time with people less fortunate than yourself. “Walk a mile in my shoes” can go a long way in developing the ability to empathize.

Caprino: Any final words about empathy?

Wellins: On a final note, it’s clear that empathy extends far beyond the workplace. We have just shown that leaders who go through our training in the workplace are more likely to resolve conflict at home and in community settings, influence others, and get better at listening. There is a great deal of research that supports the close tie between the quality of life at home and the workplace. Better empathy is a win/win all around.


This article was written by Kathy Caprino from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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