Empathy in the work context: to be or not to be empathetic to everyone?

It was a winter afternoon and the end of a training day in a hotel room. A team belonging to a multinational company had spent the last few hours exploring, discussing and sharing some questions about Emotional Intelligence skills. In the final discussion, one of the participants asked me a question: “But do I really have to be empathetic with everyone?”

We’ll come back to the question (and the answer) in a moment, but I propose that we first briefly reflect on some aspects of empathy.

What is (and is not) empathy?

According to Brené Brown (recognized researcher in this area) in her book “Atlas of the heart”, empathy is a set of emotional skills that allow us to understand what someone is experiencing, while maintaining the discernment of what are my feelings and the feelings of the other. Completing with Daniel Goleman’s perspective, there are 3 elements of empathy: cognitive empathy (understanding the other), emotional empathy (feeling with the other) and compassionate empathy (feeling what can help).

One aspect that we must consider is that being empathetic does not imply necessarily agreeing with the other and with his attitudes. It is essential to clarify this because this idea is often an obstacle to cultivate empathy with someone else, namely at workplace. I can empathize with someone and still not be friends, not agree with the person and be able to define my limits.

In simple terms, we can say that empathy is recognizing the human experience of the other. And that implies openness (of mind, heart and will, as Otto Scharmer would say) to take perspective and broaden my vision of the other, even if his experience is different from mine.

Is empathy natural?

In a way, we all feel that it’s easier to empathize with people we like and identify with, than with people we disagree with. In fact, this “naturalness” actually happens unconsciously. In the research carried out by David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and researcher at Stanford University, the participants’ empathic reaction to people belonging to the same group or not (religious, football, political, etc.) was analyzed. Although participants reported that they cared about all people equally, brain scans revealed a different story: participants cared more about some people than others, and their subconscious selectivity was based on whether they belonged to the same group of the participant. This means that, even unconsciously, we have a spontaneous empathy for people who are similar to us, who are part of the same “group” (whether formal or informal).

Being aware of this unconscious bias allows us to be attentive and intentionally cultivate empathy with people who are initially different or who are not part of the same “group”.

Is empathy at risk?

Sara Konrath, a researcher in the field of empathy and generosity at Indiana University, draws attention to the “empathy paradox”: the fact that in an age with so much electronic connection, a decrease in social connection is simultaneously observed. Her research (compiling studies going back to the 1970s) has shown relevant changes in social traits and behaviors, notably an increase in narcissism and a decrease in empathy in recent years.

On the other hand, according to Dr. Fritz Breithaupt, author of the book “The Dark Sides of Empathy”, we are becoming more demanding about to whom we show our empathy. In other words, we develop our empathy only towards those we feel deserve it or to whom shares the same philosophical, political, religious, social opinions or positions. When this happens, our actions can become more like an act of tribalism and marginalization than a universal expression of connectedness.

In other words, in addition to the unconscious empathic bias that we mentioned in the previous paragraph, we are deliberately cultivating an empathic relationship with those who are similar to us and disregarding the need to do so with those who differ from us. And the risk becomes very big when we put people into two categories – “us” and “them”, worthy and unworthy of empathy.

Empathy at the workplace

In the workplace, the issue of empathy becomes even more fundamental. We are “obliged” to work with people who are different from us, from different generations, with different experiences, skills and personalities. For a team to be effective, innovative and productive and for employees to feel involved, safe and with well-being, then empathy has to be the basis of connection.

Without empathy, we will easily judge, label and categorize others. Each person’s story and context matters, and each is worthy of being heard, understood, and valued. As leaders, we have the opportunity to foster an undiscriminated and non-selective empathy, creating openness to listen, understand and take perspective.

A matter of choice

So we return to the initial question: Do we have to be empathetic to everyone? I would say that more than an obligation, it is a choice. Whether in a personal or professional context, cultivating an empathetic relationship with someone I like or who is my friend does not require intention, it is something natural. On the other hand, cultivating empathy for someone who is different from me is a deliberate choice that allows me to broaden my perspective, gain greater knowledge, be more fair and collaborative, and develop myself as a person and as a professional. Summarizing it, I would say that it is when empathy is most difficult that it is most needed.

“Q: How are we supposed to treat others?

A: Others? There are no others”

Ramana Maharshi)

Article originally published here:

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