Developing Your Empathy

I recently facilitated a workshop at the USC Center for Third Space Thinking. TST focuses on developing five key attributes necessary for becoming a highly effective leader. These attributes – Adaptability, Cultural Competency, Empathy, Intellectual Curiosity and 360-Degree Thinking – are discussed in my previous blogs.


For me, empathy is at the fulcrum of these essential skills (notice I didn’t call them “soft skills”). I’ve already discussed how creating a culture of trust can actually have a positive effect on oxytocin levels, which results in high performance levels in the organization. However, to develop a trust-laden environment, empathy is key. Additionally, empathy is the connective tissue for each of the other four attributes. It’s hard to be adaptable, culturally competent and curious, or to think with a 360 point-of-view without some level of empathy.


The Center for Creative Leadership conducted a study that included 6,700 managers in over 38 countries. The results revealed that empathy in leaders has a positive correlation to high levels of job performance. It is important to note that having empathy is not the same as demonstrating empathy. Being empathetic is more than just having sympathy towards a situation. It’s about truly understanding. These results are directly relevant when you as the manager or leader demonstrate empathic emotion. If your subordinates rate you high in empathic emotion, your boss is more likely to give you a high performance review.


There are cultural differences that affect the impact empathy can have on an organization’s performance.  For instance, organizations in countries where power is more concentrated at the higher levels – like China, Egypt, New Zealand, and Poland – have a greater impact on employees when they demonstrate empathic emotion. According to the Center for Creative Leadership report, these cultures ascribe to a paternalistic climate, and this attribute fosters a foundation of support and protection that allows for successful job performance in these higher-level-power countries.

I presented these findings to the 30 or so executives who gathered that day for the workshop at USC. However, we have come to understand that you don’t teach skills like empathy by talking through a PowerPoint presentation. Rather, you learn by doing. Therefore, the meat of this session ended up being an Empathic Interview, in which the attendees are paired up and armed with techniques to help them ask powerful open-ended questions that lead to a meaningful and deep conversation. We counseled them to pay attention to non-verbal cues and told them to not be afraid of silence and to avoid yes/no questions.


All told, the participants had about 50 minutes to dig deeper into issues that might be concerning to them. They helped each other generate practical strategies to deal with issues such as managing up, developing work/life balance, and dealing with difficult employees. The biggest complaint about this exercise was that people began delving so deep that they felt they needed more time. Several of the attendees said they would use this technique in their interview process when adding new employees.

Shortly after this impactful experience, I took a trip to Chicago to get certified in Organizational and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC).  ORSC represents a weaving of the best empirical, practical, and theoretical approaches to form a unified field theory of Relationship Systems Work. Some of the theoretical framework of ORSC is derived from General Systems Theory, Process Work, Organizational Development, Appreciative Inquiry, Emotional Intelligence, Positive Psychology, and Co-Active Coaching.


What I realized in the training was that almost all the valuable exercises we learned when working with the organization or team were heavily skewed to help the individuals develop empathy. In the training, you literally learn to speak from the other’s perspective and look at the team as a separate system apart from the individuals.


Daniel Goleman and other emotional intelligence and workplace competency researchers have consistently identified empathy as a core component of emotional intelligence and a powerful predictor of success in many professions. Empathy helps us develop deep levels of rapport and trust. The good news is with sustained practice empathy can be learned.