Do we really need empathy?


It wasn't until today that I discovered the existence of the Global Empathy Index, an indicator that has been measuring empathy levels in the biggest companies around the world since 2014, given that empathy is believed to correlate positively with growth, productivity, and earnings.  Indeed, the top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index increased in value by more than twice as much as the bottom 10 over the last year! As the article in HBR began with the words "Empathy has never been in more explicit demand from corporate leaders", I assumed that this would be about leadership characteristics. After all, empathic behaviour is acknowledged as being a key competence for today's leaders.  Reading further, I began to understand that this index does indeed relate to leadership behaviour, but largely in a more indirect manner. Also, the definition of empathy that was used ("understanding our emotional impact on others and making change as a result") differed from the ones I'd seen before, and thus added to the already large landscape of existing definitions of empathy. In fact, the Global Empathy Index most of all measures the way a company communicates with customers and responds to their needs, which obviously makes sense in a business context. So, I had learned about one more way to look at empathy.

I actually found this article by chance because I wanted to know more about the nature of empathy related to leadership behaviour, and I had hoped to find answers to questions such as 'How do empathic leaders behave?' and 'To what extent can empathic behaviour be learned?' , but what I found was far from clear. At least, there is enough evidence that empathy can be un-learned: consider what happens during the career of professional care-takers, who would all be burned out if they had not learned to distance themselves to some extent from the occasionally intense emotions of the people they work with. Also, there is some evidence that it can be trained. One example is given by Tania Singer, Director of the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig. In 2015, Singer presented the results of empathy training in adults at the World Economic Forum; most training proved to be effective in the sense that it increased people's understanding of others, compassion and pro-social behaviour.  But even more importantly, it also demonstrated that it matters what kind of training we are talking about and what kind of behavioural effects we want to see.

This prompted me to find out more about the concept of empathy and the different components it comprises. During recent years, psychologists as well as neuroscientists have concluded that we have to at least distinguish between cognitive and affective empathic processes, and to separate them clearly from seemingly-related words we use in daily life, like sympathy and compassion. Not only because each process appears to sit in different parts of our brains, but above all because the social implications of both processes differ. Cognitive empathy is understood as the ability to mentally understand other peoples' mental processes, whereas affective empathy involves sensitivity to and experience of other peoples' feelings. To take an extreme example: high levels of cognitive empathy and low levels of affective empathy can be found in manipulative people, while the opposite characteristics (high affective empathy and low cognitive empathy) can be found in caring individuals who may not fully understand what is going on with the other person. Yet this distinction is often not made in leadership literature. Most questionnaires, used in the context of leadership development programs that include empathy, mix items from both aspects into one definition of empathy. In addition, leadership programs often do not refer to this distinction, and focus for instance on training listening skills and/or perspective-taking skills (putting oneself in another person's shoes) to enhance empathy.  These trainings generally lead to leaders being perceived as more empathic, but in fact we don't really know what this means.

However, distinguishing between affective and cognitive empathy and separating these from concepts like sympathy and compassion is important, but not sufficient if we want to communicate clearly on the subject of empathy in the context of leadership behaviour, as there are more empathy-related concepts that deserve our attention which are not synonymous with either affective or cognitive empathy. One is emotional contagion: synchronizing your emotions with those of another person and converging emotionally. This is probably an aspect of empathy that most leaders would not want to have too much of. Another interesting concept is empathic accuracy, which relates to the extent to which we can successfully read another person's mind. I assume leaders might want to have some of this. Then there is the aspect of behavioural mimicry, which refers to the unconscious matching of the gestures or postures of another person, leading to a feeling of being in sync with each other. Looking at empathy from a neuroscience perspective does not simplify things, as mimicry in this context is understood as the matching of neural responses by our mirror neuron system. And the list of perspectives and definitions does not end here.

If we want to increase our understanding of empathic leadership, then we might need concepts that are more precise and easier to relate to actual behaviour and the potential impact of this behaviour. So, do we really need empathy? My guess is that it would probably be better to start replacing this term with some of its – not necessarily mutually exclusive – facets, which are described a little more precisely and therefore probably also better understood.  One clarifying set of concepts is proposed by Professor Jean Decety from the University of Chicago.
Affective Sharing (the natural capacity to become affectively aroused by others' emotions)
Empathic Concern (the motivation to care about another person's welfare)
Perspective Taking (the ability to consciously put oneself into the mind of another individual and imagine what that person is thinking or feeling)

Decety's distinction adds to our understanding of empathy because each of these three facets derives from specific neurobiological processes.  More importantly, however, and in relation to leadership effectiveness, focusing exclusively on one of these facets can, depending on factors such as interpersonal relations and social context, have completely different consequences for each one. Take this example:  imagine yourself in a room full of nervous, agitated people. The atmosphere is such that it affects your mood and you start to become nervous and agitated yourself. Whereas affective sharing usually leads to us feeling closer to other people, in this case it could lead to a strong desire to create more distance and even to leave the room!  Thus too much affective sharing can lead to distress and withdrawal, an effect that is not related to perspective taking, and much less to empathic concern.  Another example is that primarily empathic concern can lead to biased decision-making, because it is experienced more readily by members of one's own group. This can lead to prioritizing the needs of an individual or a small group over the needs of the whole group.  And thirdly, as mentioned earlier, active perspective taking without a sense of empathic concern can lead to manipulative behaviour that only benefits one party. On the contrary, correctly combining empathic concern with perspective taking can lead to better balanced and more effective decision-making.

Thus, leaders do not benefit from merely increasing the amount of empathic behaviours they exhibit, but from learning when and how to engage in different facets of empathy in order to become even more effective. A better understanding of these facets might therefore be a good start.

By: Carine Metselaar

Date: 12:28 pm on February 7th, 2017

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