This article is a synopsis of a recent breakfast seminar delivered by Stuart Duff, Pearn Kandola’s Head of Development.
Many leaders in the workplace today struggle with empathy. At Pearn Kandola, our coaches report that 60% of all their workplace mentoring involves helping leaders with issues around empathy, and developing the skills to listen and understand.
Does this matter? For many, sharing feelings at work and showing empathy is a sign of weakness. However, when you consider that empathy enables you to connect with a wide range of people, it is easy to imagine a strong link between empathy and effective leadership.
If there is such a link, is empathy something that we are born with? Or is it a skill that leaders can develop?
Empathy is essentially the ability to sense, perceive or conceptualise how another person is experiencing the world. In other words, it is our ability to see a situation from another person’s perspective. It is often confused with sympathy, which is a strong feeling of care for someone in need.
Empathy has two components:
- Affective, which is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s perspective or mental state. This type of empathy is emotional and spontaneous, and could be argued that it is ‘natural’ and something we are born with.
- Cognitive, which is the capacity to understand another’s perspective or mental state. This manifests itself as ‘perspective taking’ and is conscious and rational. It may be that this type of empathy can be developed.
While empathy might be considered a personality trait, Adrian Furnham (2008) says that empathy is not a personality trait, because it relates to both thought and feeling. Simon Baren-Cohen, however, points out that empathy is a measurable construct and that everyone falls somewhere within a ‘normal’ curved distribution, much like height or weight.
Degrees of empathy
On the empathy spectrum, those with low levels of empathy are likely to show traits such as being detached, self-interested, cold, tough and boastful. A significant deficit in empathy has been clearly linked to psychopathic, narcissistic and borderline personality disorders.
Those with high levels of empathy on the other hand will come across as being interested in and concerned for others, supportive, shy and concerned about being liked, with high pro-social behaviours (i.e. behaviours that go above and beyond expectations, such as volunteering). Brain scans of those with high empathy show much stronger responses when others feel pain.
Gutsall (2013) showed that our levels of empathy will vary depending on the familiarity of the other person. For people that were less familiar – i.e. not in our social grouping – people had lower levels of empathy. This has interesting implications in understanding our perceptions of others, our biases and our ability to take others’ perspectives.
Impact on leadership?
A useful starting point for considering the role of empathy in leadership is to consider the dominant leadership models, all of which mention empathic behaviours. For example:
- Transformational leaders: “Transformational leaders demonstrate genuine concern for the needs and feelings of followers.” (Bass, 1996)
- Authentic leaders: “Authentic leaders possess qualities like empathy, compassion and courage. They have the ability to establish deep, long-term and genuine relationships where others trust them.” (George, 2007)
- Inclusive Leaders: “Perspective taking is one of the most significant tools in leadership to reduce bias and increase inclusive leadership behaviours.” (Kandola, 2012)
While the premise that empathy and strong leadership are linked seems reasonable, proving it is difficult as there has only been limited research carried out in this area, especially in the last twenty years.
One important exception is a study by Sadri et al (2011), which showed that leaders rated by subordinates as higher in empathic behaviours were also perceived as better performers by their boss.
In addition, Wolff et al (2012) found that empathy enables effective problem solving by leaders (especially regarding interpersonal issues). Ashkanasy et al (2002) showed that leaders who display empathy through their everyday behaviour are rated as more effective as leaders than those who do not, while Kellett et al (2006) showed that leaders who display empathic emotion are able to better understand others and provide support when required.
A link has also been identified between creativity in teams and spontaneous perspective-taking behaviour (van Knippenberg et al, 2012).
Culture plays an important role in determining the value placed on empathy in terms of leadership. Power distance (Hofstede) – the degree to which individuals accept that power is distributed unequally – is an important moderator. In cultures with high power distance, such as Malaysia and China, empathy is seen as less necessary for effective leadership. In low power distance cultures, such as Denmark and Sweden, empathy is seen as far more necessary and influential (Sadri et al, 2011).
Not all research makes a link between empathy in the workplace and effective leadership. In one example, business and finance students on MBA courses consistently rated empathy as the least necessary leadership skill (Holt and Marques, 2010). Entrepreneurial leaders also rate significantly below average in terms of empathy capability (Bonnstetter, 2013). They tend to focus on vision and motivation to inspire their staff into action and achieve the results they require.
At Pearn Kandola, we ran a leadership programme with 408 high-performing business leaders. We found that as a group these leaders scored lower in ‘empathic’ behaviours than all other ‘task’ behaviours. This is perhaps unsurprising as Hogan and Hogan (1994) point out that leaders tend to emphasise task, while followers emphasise trust and integrity.
Most interestingly of all, this is reinforced by competency frameworks, few of which directly refer to empathy.
Can empathy be taught?
If empathy is beneficial in the workplace, is it something that can be developed?
It helps to consider the two components of empathy separately: affective (emotional) and cognitive (perspective taking).
Davis (1990) said that empathic emotion cannot be taught: “When empathy occurs we find ourselves experiencing it rather than directly causing it to happen.”
However, Rogers (1992) said that it may be increased or diminished by the environment someone is working in. For example, empathy diminishes in medical students over the first three years of their training.
What is more likely is that the skill of perspective taking can be taught. For example, the results of two longitudinal evaluations – where perspective taking was used as a key tool – demonstrated significant changes in perceptions of leadership (Kandola and Hammarling, 2013).
A meta-analysis of a range of medical school interventions (including training medical practitioners using patient interviews, role plays and communication skills materials) enhanced the perception of empathy in medical practitioners (Batt-Rawden at al, 2013).
Narcissists have also been shown to increase their sense of empathy when they are prompted to consider the position of another person.