Strategic 360s

Making feedback matter

Empathy Is a Choice

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There were two items in this Sunday’s New York Times that had “empathy” in their title:  “Empathy is Actually a Choice” ( in the Review section, and, “Is Empathy in Your Resume” ( in the Business section.

The first article is a summary of some research on empathy that supports the stance that empathy is not an immutable personality trait or reflex emotion, but instead is a set of behaviors that can be changed.  As the author states, “… empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.” (Emphasis added)  The article speaks to some of the challenges in getting people to show more empathy, starting with lower empathy from leaders in high positions (perhaps due to the perceived cost of empathetic actions) and towards people of different race.

The second NYT piece is from the Corner Office column, this time an interview with Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of Slack, and earlier Flickr. In Stewart’s responses, he calls empathy an ability, but then goes on to describe how it is manifested in simple behaviors, such as showing up on time and being courteous (a series of behaviors).  (Also check out the 3 questions he asks of job candidates and see if you would pass.)

Often the choice is based largely on the person simply knowing that there is a choice to be made and what the organization’s preferred response is supposed to be. That often comes in the form of Values statements.

In the context of this blog on 360s, ultimately, much of what we include (or should include) on feedback instruments comes down to basic behaviors that are choices, not abilities or skills that require training or development plans. Many of them, like showing up on time, are simple choices of whether to do it or not. They are also observable, a basic requirement for inclusion on feedback instruments if we don’t want raters to be mind readers.

Typical leadership competency models are a mix of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA’s)  that usually do justify inclusion in selection and/or training processes, such as Communication (as defined as an ability, not a choice whether to communicate) and Values such as Teamwork, which is really a choice of whether to support others or not.  Another example that we see in some competency models is the contrast of Decision Making (that can be trained in the context of problem solving processes) versus Decisiveness, the “choice” to make a decision or not.  We should distinguish within our leadership requirements which variables are KSAs (Communication, Decision Making) and which are “choices”  (Teamwork, Decisiveness).

Back to Empathy, most of us agree that a good starting point for creating empathy is to listen.  (I wrote on this topic once before:   In The ManagerCoach© upward feedback instrument, we ask direct reports whether their manager listens more than talks during coaching; it’s the lowest scoring item overall and a very consistent finding.

Getting leaders to listen more and talk less typically requires some awareness, beginning with breaking down the stereotypical view that most managers have that it is their job to have all the answers and to make sure those around them know that.  There is a time when a manager needs to be in the “Director” mode, such as in crisis situations or when the employee is new to the task (as in the Situational Leadership Model of a person low on task maturity).  But I believe that the preferred and most commonly used type of coaching should be what I call the “Activator” mode where the manager and employee engage in mutual problem solving, creating trust and mutual understanding.

One tool we use to create more listening is the WAIT acronym, that is, to ask yourself, “Why Am I Talking?”  Not long ago, I saw a blog where a mother was proposing using that same tool as a parent.

Another argument for enhanced listening is referenced earlier in the finding that people have difficulty in showing empathy for people of a different race.  When I was an undergraduate, I took a seminar (about 15 people) on nonverbal communication.  One of the most impactful exercises we performed was to go into a room alone with cue cards that had emotions written on them (Happy, Sad, Angry, Fear, Surprise, etc.) and take a “selfie” (certainly not what it was called then). Then a week later we were shown pictures of various people in the class and had to judge which emotion they were showing.   You got scored as an actor and as a judge.

The seminar membership was not very diverse, but we did have one African American male (big football player) and an African American female. While I don’t recall how I did as a judge or actor, what I really remember most is that I could not differentiate his various emotions but the woman of the same race could.  This is very anecdotal, but I believe (and have seen) that my experience is reflective of the larger populations.

In the context of listening as a means to the end of creating empathy, understanding and trust, it is even more critical when we are hampered by not having accurate access to nonverbal clues that is likely when conversing across races.  There is other research that not only supports that observation, but branches out to other types of differences between the two parties in an exchange.

The author of the research summary adds this other insight:

…when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded; it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.

This additional research finding gives us even more ammunition for positioning abstract constructs such as empathy not as fixed personal attributes but as behaviors that can be changed by creating awareness and alignment, and providing incentives (including accountability). We are doing ourselves as developers of leaders a disservice when we attach labels to groups of behaviors (e.g., Emotional Intelligence) that potentially cause unintended consequences such as, a) believing the construct it an unchangeable characteristic, b) leading to unclear definitions (sometimes by shear laziness), an c) assuming the “group” cannot be deconstructed and improved one behavior at a time, i.e., the sub behaviors are highly correlated (which they probably are not).

Once the choice is made whether to perform a behavior or not, then there can be some guidance/training to further refine it. For example, if the choice is whether to thank and/or recognize someone, we need to motivate the person/leader to do so. Once he/she has made that decision, we can help them to consider various ways of doing it that fit the situation and person.

But first the choice must be made.


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