Empathy Is Still Lacking in the Leaders Who Need It Most

Many people and a host of commentators instinctively recoiled at the callous management practices described in a scathing New York Times article about Amazon. So did Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive. In a memo to Amazon employees, he wrote, “Our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”

He’s right, not only on humanitarian grounds but also for reasons that should appeal to a hard-headed businessman like him. At Amazon and other businesses, the “e-word” should be the watchword.

For three years my colleagues and I at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism crisscrossed the U.S. and traveled to other nations asking business leaders what attributes executives must have to succeed in today’s digital, global economy. They identified five as critical: adaptability, cultural competence (the capacity to think, act, and move across multiple borders), 360-degree thinking (holistic understanding, capable of recognizing patterns of problems and their solutions), intellectual curiosity, and, of course, empathy.

These so-called “soft” attributes constitute a distinctive way of seeing the world. Taken together, they create a kind of “Third Space” that differs sharply from the other two perspectives that have long dominated business thinking: the engineering and traditional MBA perspectives.

Frankly, when empathy kept coming up in our research, I was surprised. All of the people we interviewed were serious business executives. Empathy was not the first virtue I associated with the rough and tumble of today’s highly competitive business world. I expected to hear about boldness, perseverance, and toughness.

Later, when we reported the results of our research to other leaders, many said empathy was the most important of the five attributes we had uncovered (though intellectual curiosity and 360-degree thinking were also popular). And this enthusiasm for empathy among business leaders crosses borders. Not only entertainment executives in Los Angeles and IT leaders in Manhattan but also PR professionals in Shanghai and digital businessmen and investors meeting in the Jockey Club in Beijing acknowledged the overwhelming importance of empathy. So did start-up founders in Rome and advertising professionals in Paris. For further proof, just consider that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently signaled that the platform is building some type of button for users to express empathy for someone else’s post.

What is empathy? It is a deep emotional intelligence that is closely connected to cultural competence. Empathy enables those who possess it to see the world through others’ eyes and understand their unique perspectives.

Why empathy over other values? We have teased out several possible explanations.

First, the monolithic group formerly known as the audience — the passive customer, the compliant patient, the couch potato — are all relics of the pre-digital past when communication was mostly a one-way street from seller to buyer. Now communication goes both ways. Today’s multiple and highly vocal audiences demand to be heard or they will take their business elsewhere. You need empathy to know who those audiences are and what they want.

Empathetic understanding is also indispensable in increasingly diverse markets, like those of the U.S., Germany, and even Japan, and in other cultures around the world. Neither technical knowledge nor business acumen suffices. You must be sincerely interested in understanding other cultural preferences and choices.

Empathy counts inside company walls, too. Many companies have abandoned rigid hierarchies and top-down command, believing that collaboration produces better results than cutthroat competition of the sort reported at Amazon. In these companies, relationships and persuasion have become essential for success. And to persuade effectively you must be able to empathize. (Catbert, the evil director of human resources in the Dilbert comic strip, suffers from a severe empathy deficit.)

Consider, too, the millennials, born between 1980 and 2000. They’re a confounding cohort. On the one hand, they’re often caricatured as blithe narcissists, too self-absorbed to look up from their smartphones when they’re talking to you. On the other hand, they are just as often said to want meaningful work with socially responsible companies who reflect their values (a view found in the Pew Research Center’s ongoing series of reports on millennials and a recent study published by the Brookings Institution). But whether narcissistic or noble, they are 80 million strong and now dominate the workplace. Leading and managing them requires understanding them individually — the kind of genuine understanding provided not by broad-brush depictions but by empathy.

A classic New Yorker cartoon nicely captures the irony here. A boss behind a big desk tells a hapless subordinate, “The important thing, Smithers, is not that we understand one another, it’s that you understand me!”

Empathy isn’t everything, however. Just adding a dose of empathy to Bezos’s cereal in the morning won’t do the trick. We heard again and again that business leaders want executives at every level to have the whole package — all five Third Space attributes. You can be disposed toward empathy, but incompetent at exercising it if you lack the cultural competence to pick up on cues in your surroundings, the intellectual curiosity to explore other people’s reality, the 360-degree thinking to see all the way around a situation, or the adaptability to accommodate what you have come to understand. But empathy remains an emotional foundation — it’s the “attribute-prime” of successful leaders.