Empathy in the workplace and beyond


What is empathy, and how can it help your career? Join us as we uncover the secrets of this essential leadership trait.

In the 1990s, Italian scientists studying a laboratory monkey to understand how his brain worked as he cracked open a nut, chanced upon a new discovery. When a researcher entered the lab and absentmindedly picked at a nut, the same neurons lit up in the brain of the observing monkey as when the monkey himself engaged in nut-cracking. The researchers thought the MRI machine was on the blink, but further investigation uncovered something of much greater import – that primates and humans (elephants too and possibly even mice, dolphins and dogs, among other species) are wired to understand another creature’s plight. In short, the ability to empathise is in our DNA. Empathy in leadership One of the biggest advocates for empathy of our time comes from a surprising source: US President Barack Obama. In times of economic meltdown, global poverty and the increasing threat of terrorism, surely the leader of the free world is clutching at straws when he urges us to simply be a bit nicer to each other? Therein, says a Harvard Business Review report, lies a common misconception – that empathy is about compassion, tolerance and sensitivity. ‘It’s not about feeling sorry for people or giving them the benefit of the doubt. It’s an act of imagination in which you try to look at the world from the perspective of another person, a human being whose history and point of view are as complex as your own.’ When Obama won his second term, commentators attributed his success in large part to his ability to empathise (and by extension his opponent’s inability to do the same). ‘There was plurality of voters (by a margin of 10 per cent) who felt that Barack Obama understood what they were facing, or to be more exact, that he was “in touch” with their problems,’ wrote one commentator. Obama hadn’t just chanced upon what might be his greatest attribute as a leader; his application of empathy was a conscious and considered move. ‘The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit,’ he has said. ‘We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.’ While empathy is still often regarded as a ‘feminine’ skill, a ‘soft fluffy thing relegated to HR’ (see video below), presidential endorsement has given it a renewed focus – and one that doesn’t just consider empathy as a vital people skill, applied by managers focused on the wellbeing of their teams and understanding their customers. Empathy can have a dramatic affect on the bottom line of both individuals and corporations large and small.

‘L’Oreal sales agents who are more empathic sell on average a $100,000 more than those without empathy. Waiters who are more empathic get 18% more in tips. And even debt collectors who are more empathic earn more money,’ says Belinda Parmar OBE, CEO of Little Miss Geek. ‘The empathy era is about bringing empathy into all aspects of business…driving sales…and from shop floor right through to the board room.’ In ‘Empathy drives profit’, the author tells how a Scottish Housing Association took a more empathic approach to employee relations and was rewarded with 87% staff engagement rates and, by extension, a rise to 90% in customer satisfaction. And when a technology website got hold of Apple’s staff training manual, much was made of the tech giant’s emphasis on empathic customer relations. Another ringing endorsement of empathy came from another unlikely source: the military. In his article ‘Leadership In A Combat Zone’, Lieutenant General William Pagonis, Director of Logistics during the Gulf War, wrote: ‘Owning the facts is a prerequisite to leadership. But there are millions of technocrats out there with lots of facts in their quivers and little leadership potential. In many cases, what they are missing is empathy. No one is a leader who can’t put himself or herself in the other person’s shoes. Empathy and expertise command respect.’

Nurturing your empathic skills

So are we born with empathy or do we acquire it? ‘The answer is both,’ says Daniel Goleman in ‘What Makes A Leader’. ‘Scientific inquiry strongly suggests that there is a genetic component to emotional intelligence. Psychological and developmental research indicates that nurture plays a role as well. How much of each perhaps will never be known, but research and practice clearly demonstrate that emotional intelligence can be learned.’ Studies have also pointed towards empathy being akin to a switch we can control. Stress hormones have been found to act like blockers, indicating that when we’re stressed, we’re less likely to empathise with others. And psychopaths, who it’s long been theorised are ‘missing’ the empathy chip, are in fact in full possession of it – they simply have the ability to flick it on and off at will. It might be more useful then, to think about empathy as a quality which can be nurtured. We all have the tools to become a communicator – a voice box, the ability to put thoughts into words; but clearly some are better communicators than others, having nurtured their inherent qualities. This Lifehacker article has some lovely suggestions, summarised below, for how you can nurture your own empathic abilities: Listen more: Study the person you’re conversing with, paying attention to what they say and do, and what their body language is telling you at the same time. Force yourself to slow down, beware of interrupting, and find ways to demonstrate that you’re absorbing what the other person has told you. People watch: You can pick up a myriad of clues about what people are thinking and feeling by observing them in everyday life – in group situations, in meetings, while commuting. Take time to wonder about their lives, what challenges they might face, and how they might be feeling. Get under the skin of your challengers: We all have people in our lives whose motivations, ideas and ideologies seem at odds with our own. When clashing with a co-worker, take a step back and try to see the situation from their point of view, without judgement.

How empathic are you (take the quiz to find out)?

Most of us are not as empathetic as we think we are, and researchers have spent decades attempting to find the definitive test for empathy, many of which have since been disregarded. Below we’ve printed the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire, a scale which researchers agree gives a good benchmark of individuals’ empathic levels. Grab a piece of paper and write the numbers 1 to 16 in a column. For each question below, write you answer (‘Never’, ‘Rarely’, ‘Sometimes’, ‘Often’ or ‘Always’) next to the number. There are no right or wrong answers so be as honest as you can. The highest score on this test is 64; your personal score will give you an indication of your current empathic levels; look over the questions on which you’ve scored lowest to assess which areas of empathic ability you can begin to nurture. Note any observations you make or memories you recall as you consider each question.
  1. When someone else is feeling excited, I tend to get excited too
  2. Other people’s misfortunes do not disturb me a great deal
  3. It upsets me to see someone being treated disrespectfully
  4. I remain unaffected when someone close to me is happy
  5. I enjoy making other people feel better
  6. I have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me
  7. When a friend starts to talk about his/her problems, I try to steer the conversation towards something else
  8. I can tell when others are sad even when they do not say anything
  9. I find that I am ‘in tune’ with other people’s moods
  10. I do not feel sympathy for people who cause their own serious illnesses
  11. I become irritated when someone cries
  12. I am not really interested in how other people feel
  13. I get a strong urge to help when I see someone who is upset
  14. When I see someone being treated unfairly, I do not feel very much pity for them
  15. I find it silly for people to cry out of happiness
  16. When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards him/her


For questions 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 13 and 16, score as follows: Never = 0; Rarely = 1; Sometimes = 2; Often = 3; Always = 4. For questions 2, 4, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, score as follows: Never = 4; Rarely = 3; Sometimes = 2; Often = 1; Always = 0.

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