Very simply, it is the ability to walk a mile in someone else's shoes, feel what they feel, and offer a sense of understanding. Interestingly, our ability to practice empathy is biologically engrained; what scientists have called “mirror neurons” are the neurons that fire when we express emotion – and they’ve found that those same neurons fire when we witness someone expressing emotion as well (Häusser, 2012).
As a manager, empathy may be one of the most important qualities for you to start leaning into more often. And contrary to what you may think, empathy can be cultivated and improved over time. While personality factors and environmental factors (like how nurturing the environments we grew up in were) can certainly impact our empathy levels, we can continuously work to improve them. And it might be less complex than you think.
Empathy doesn’t just sound like a nice quality; it can drastically change the way we behave with our employees on a day-to-day basis. Research has found that managers with lower levels of empathy tend to be less fair with their employees (even if they aren’t consciously aware of it), but that this can be moderated by increasing self-awareness. Self-awareness has been found to encourage managers to meet higher fairness standards (Whiteside & Barclay, 2016).
Empathy involves the ability to see the world from another person's perspective. The only way we can truly see the world from someone else’s perspective is to have them share it with us. As humans, we have a natural desire to reduce differences between ourselves and others in order to build rapport, and it’s a strategy we unconsciously use in our day-to-day interactions. It’s critical to acknowledge individual differences, though, and admit when we don’t have sufficient information to understand someone’s experience. We want to engage in more conversations with a genuine desire to learn and understand a person with no ulterior agenda.
Cultivating empathy is an ongoing process that involves self-awareness, and a genuine desire to understand and learn from others. By incorporating a couple of these strategies into your daily life, you can develop a deeper sense of empathy and build more meaningful connections with your team. In a world that often feels divided, empathy is a tool that might carry you farther than you imagine.
Whiteside, D. B., & Barclay, L. J. (2016). The face of fairness: Self-awareness as a means to promote fairness among managers with low empathy. Journal of Business Ethics, 137(4), 721–730.
Häusser L. F. (2012). Empathie und Spiegelneurone. Ein Blick auf die gegenwärtige neuropsychologische Empathieforschung [Empathy and mirror neurons. A view on contemporary neuropsychological empathy research]. Praxis der Kinderpsychologie und Kinderpsychiatrie, 61(5), 322–335. https://doi.org/10.13109/prkk.2012.61.5.322