As one of the things that this blog explores is the nature and impact of our relationships, both with each other and with more abstract entities (‘the organisation’, ‘the strategy’ and so on), I was surprised when I searched for one particular word, and found only five references. The word was empathy – the ability to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. (And empathy is about understanding, not pity or admiration: empathy is about comprehension, not comparison.)

Being inquisitive, I googled the usual quotation sources, and came up similarly short-handed. (If you have a great quote about empathy, please share them with us.) As the web isn’t the only source of wisdom, I tried a few books – and found that the Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations doesn’t list it in the index at all. Reminding myself that understanding is something that sometimes needs to unearthed, I kept digging. And was subsequently relieved – if only as a human being – to find that some of the most respected minds (and mouths) in business and management theory had actually something to say on the subject:

  • The number one practical competency for success in life and work is empathy
    (Peter Drucker)
  • When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem solving. This need for psychological air impacts communication in every area of life
    (Steven Covey)

I was reminded of the power and potential of empathy by a section of Roman Krznaric’s book, The Wonderbox, that explained its role in bringing about the abolition of slavery (inspired in turn by the author’s own reading of the historian, Adam Hochschild, in his book, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves). As Krznaric reports, Anglican deacon Thomas Clarkson and a group of Quaker businessmen led the initial campaign, by printing and distributing leaflets – in ordinary places, like pub walls – that made plain what the live of a slave was really like. Clarkson and his colleagues were appealing to human empathy, but Hochschild explains why the anti-slavery movement took hold most vigorously in the Britain of the times, rather than elsewhere.

People are more likely to care about the suffering of others in a distant place if that misfortune evokes a fear of their own. And late-eighteenth century Britons were in the midst of widespread first-hand experience with a kind of kidnapping and enslavement that stood in dramatic contradiction to everything about citizens’ rights enshrined in British law. It was arbitrary, violent, and sometimes fatal … It was the practice of naval impressment.”

Navy press gangs were such a widespread feature of British life in the period that most families had been touched by it. The threat – or the reality – of one kind of slavery fired up empathy for those facing the reality of another. Clarkson’s campaign was, as we might say today, ‘in touch’. Indeed, one of the most frequent pollsters’ questions of our own times is whether political candidates are ‘out of touch’ with their voters – something that ‘trust barometers’ have extended to whole institutions and organisations.

It was fascinating a while ago to read a ComRes report on a recent poll about the forthcoming London Mayoral Election. The competition is shown to be closer than previously thought, with Ken Livingstone showing a narrow lead over Boris Johnson once second preferences are taken into account (as neither candidate has an overall lead). Yet Johnson lead, often clearly, over Livingstone in responses to all bar one of the detailed questions that the report explores:

Knows most about the concerns of ordinary Londoners

  • Boris Johnson: 24%
  • Ken Livingstone: 35%
  • Brian Paddick: 4%
  • None of these: 14%
  • Don’t know: 22%

Empathy is a driver of trust: once we can demonstrate that we have understood someone else – and that we are interested in doing so – they are more likely to show a degree of candour towards us, to feel a sense of trust, and to return the attempt at understanding. Potential for double entendres aside, it is not ‘fellow feeling’: empathy is not about getting closer to those we find ourselves in agreement with.

Empathy is what enables us to have conversations, rather than simply exchanging monologues. Monologues, moreover, that may well not be very clearly understood. Empathy is, if you like, the difference between relationships and passing acquaintances. As American psychologist Daniel Goleman once put it:

If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”

Worryingly for the rest of us, two recent pieces of research have suggested that Goleman may have been disproved. At the start of the month, Bloomberg published an article – Did Psychopaths Take Over Wall Street Asylum? – that highlighted research by Clive Boddy, recently published in book form as Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers. Last September, BBC’s Horizon screened Are You Good Or Evil (since repeated on BBC Four, so search iPlayer if you enjoy un-nerving documentaries), which also explored psychopathy. Both identified contemporary big business, with its emphasis on constant change and its approval of ‘charisma’, as territories in which those who lack the capacity can thrive. As New York psychologist, Paul Babiak, commented in the BBC programme:

Part of the problem is that the very things we’re looking for in our leaders, the psychopath can easily mimic. Their natural tendency is to be charming. Take that charm and couch it in the right business language and it sounds like charismatic leadership”.

The alarming conclusion of the Horizon programme was that while as many as 1% of Americans have some degree of psychopathic tendencies, the figure for business leaders could be as high as 1 in 25. A CNN article drawing on the work of several researchers in this field expanded on the explanation:

In the real working world […], executives who display psychopathic tendencies are often charismatic charmers on first meeting, emoting confidence that is rooted in deception, psychologists say. They lie without remorse, steal credit for accomplishments and are adroit at transferring blame for their mistakes, psychologists said. Psychopaths are more likely to have shallow, short-term sexual relationships — often in the workplace — and are easily bored. They are prone to take risks without concern for the ramifications.”

The challenge with empathy is that it is harder than sympathy. Even those of us in reasonably sound mental health will know what’s meant by a phrase like ‘making sympathetic noises’ – and how little those noises might really mean to the person making them. Empathy is more demanding: you don’t just have to demonstrate the socially acceptable response to someone else’s plight, you have to be able to imagine yourself in it and then make some adjustments. Sociologist Richard Sennett (who we’ve reviewed before, and who we quoted when we highlighted empathy as being a critical characteristic for the 21st century leader) explores many aspects of understanding and co-operation in his most recent book, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation.

The book argues that empathy may be a cooler sensation than sympathy (in the sense of metaphorical temperature rather than of fashion, although the ambiguity shouldn’t be resisted), but it is also deeper. He cites Michel de Montaigne, the essayist’s essayist, as demonstrating the point:

Montainge thinks empathy rather than sympathy is the cardinal social virtue. In the record he kept of life on his small country estate, he constantly compares his habits and tastes with those of his neighbours and workers: of course he is interested in the similarities, but he takes particular note of their peculiarities: to get along together, all will have to attend to mutual differences and dissonances.”

Presumably, the good news is that if attending to mutual differences doesn’t have any personal appeal then a glittering future may well await you in the financial sector? Faced with the choice, are you more drawn to practising your charm or your listening skills?

In the meantime, here’s a little light music to remind you how unnerving a lack of empathy can be:

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