Empathy: skill or personality trait?

Jan 28 2014 by Jerry Pounds Print This Article

Employees gauge how they are regarded by management in many ways, but the words that managers use and the way they are delivered are critical to employees' perceptions of whether they are respected or disrespected.

Common sense – as well as a myriad of job satisfaction surveys – should tell us that when managers treat their employees respectfully, the result is increased retention, job satisfaction, and job performance. When employees do not feel respected the results are correspondingly negative.

Quite apart from leading to absenteeism, poor job performance and a lack of motivation, the insensitive treatment of employees has been linked to accidents, sabotage and violence.

Employees gauge how they are regarded by management in many ways, but the words that managers use and the way they are delivered are critical to their perceptions of respect or disrespect.

Interpersonal skills training has become institutionalized as the normal approach to helping managers deal with these issues. A key objective of this training is to help managers acquire "empathy"– the ability to put oneself into another's shoes.

The primary method for creating this responsiveness (assuming that it was not there to begin with) is role-playing, a type of training adapted from psychodrama, a therapeutic process created by psychiatrist Dr. Jacob Moreno.

As Wikipedia puts it, "in psychodrama, participants explore internal conflicts through acting out their emotions and interpersonal interactions on stage".

The expressed outcome of this training solution and many others like it is stated in terms of the manager "becoming" more empathic, as opposed to simply "behaving" more empathically.

But teaching people to feel a certain way in certain situations is extremely difficult to do and the results vary widely – which is the primary reason prescription drugs and alcoholic beverages are so popular.

Teaching people to feel a certain way in certain situations is extremely difficult to do and the results vary widely
Empathy may be innate: toddlers seem to relate to the happiness or sadness of others. However, we also learn empathic ability through socialization. For example, most of us are coached to feel pain or guilt when we inflict suffering on others.

Conversely, people who continually engage in anti-social behavior, such as narcissists and psychopaths show little or no evidence of real empathic ability. Psychopaths are seemingly able to demonstrate the appearance of sensing the emotions of others - but only use their skills to charm or manipulate.

So do we need to recondition managers to feel the emotions their employees are feeling (and that's a good thing), or simply train them to behave appropriately in a wide range of emotion-provoking situations?

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman's identifies five emotional competencies. Among them are four that appear to be necessary to manage others respectfully:

  • The ability to identify and name one's emotional states
  • The capacity to manage one's emotional states
  • The capacity to read, be sensitive to, and influence other people's emotions
  • The ability to enter and sustain satisfactory interpersonal relationships

I think these criteria describe an ideal that we seldom encounter in friends and colleagues. As many plays and novels have pointed out, most of us are bound by our emotions; intelligence and reasoning appear to be subjugated by them.

In Method acting, actors try to replicate the emotional conditions that the character would experience in real life in an effort to create a realistic performance. "The Method" requires actors to draw on their own emotions, memories, and experiences to influence their portrayal of a character.

In a similar vein, ninety five percent of all US medical schools now have some form of program that uses actors to help doctors relate to patient's feelings and emotions.

According to Dr. Rita Charon, who created the patient program at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in the mid-1980s: "It was not just teaching how to ask medical questions but how to convey your own trustworthiness and willingness to listen to what the patient had to say"

More broadly, then , a good training class can use a series of role plays to help managers practice their verbal and non-verbal behavior. The class can also provide managers with the proper cues (verbal and non-verbal) that tell them the emotions that an employee was experiencing and how to respond correctly.

Perhaps some classes do this well, but their effectiveness in the real world seems to be marginal; management soft skills continue to come under constant criticism despite numerous and varied training approaches.

So perhaps organizations need to hire method actors or some psychopathic con men to teach managers how to fake their soft skills. The results could hardly be worse than those of the myriad of management training packages that have been sold and delivered over the years.

Even though the right training equation has not been developed, the skill set is trainable; soft skills can be acquired - as any good used car salesman can testify.

But the real problem is that organizations are not just not responding to the demand by workforces across the world for respectful treatment from their managers and supervisors.

Employees cannot be successfully engaged if they are experiencing negative emotions due to the behavior of their managers.

Managers (and all employees) are driven by the organizational culture which is in turn created by the values and priorities of leadership. If leaders do not prioritize respectful treatment (by making employment, promotions, raises, and bonuses contingent upon such treatment), then there is no impetus for managers to change their behavior.

In other words, with out real commitment from the top, all the behavioral change initiatives and training classes in the world will fail to deliver results.

What's more, the huge distinction between emotional training and behavioral training needs to be integrated into the language of managers, gurus, and consultants. Emotional training is hardwired from the first few years of life and changing an adult's conditioned emotional responses is not possible in an organizational setting. Even the largest company is not equipped to deliver psychological therapy to its employees and managers.

But when organizational consequences are aligned to favor the acquisition of empathic behavior, managers will see the value for personal development in the soft skills – the behaviors that communicate respect to employees.

Until we successfully redefine empathy as a skill rather than a personality trait, we will not succeed in engaging managers in the important behavior of treating employees with care and respect.

About The Author

Jerry Pounds
Jerry Pounds

Jerry Pounds is a management consultant with over 30 years of experience in applying positive reinforcement, reward, and recognition strategies to business and industry. He has written and spoken on the application and problematic nature of corporate motivational and rewards programs and trained thousands of executives, managers, and supervisors in the use of praise and rewards.