Read an excerpt from Chapter Six of this book on gender and emotion in the workplace. Buy it here.
Empathy: We Do Get by with a Little Help from Our Friends
Why Empathy is Important
Before he nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, President Obama said that “empathy” is "an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes,” and that in choosing a nominee he wanted someone "who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory." When Sotomayor’s opponents turned “empathy” into a negative catchword, which they claimed meant the unjudicial imposition of liberal legal outcomes David Brooks, the conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times, called foul, “It is incoherent to say that a judge should base an opinion on reason and not emotion because emotions are an inherent part of decision-making. Emotions are the processes we use to assign value to different possibilities…People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers.” Politics notwithstanding, this public discourse about the need for empathy to be viewed as an essential asset in the workplace was important.
Because not only are emotions like empathy important to decision-making, it turns out they impact the bottom line as well. For instance, a 1996 study that assessed the value of training workers at a manufacturing plant in emotional management skills found that filings for union grievances were reduced by two-thirds and productivity goals increased by $250,000. Organizations that explicitly incorporate empathy coaching in how to treat customers and clients – that train employees to focus on how their work affects others rather than simply on getting the job done, have reported higher rates of job satisfaction and productivity. And a study of a Fortune 400 health insurance company conducted by Peter Salovey, another founder of the emotional intelligence movement and a professor of psychology at Yale, looked at the correlation between emotional intelligence and salary and determined that those participants who were rated highest by their peers along the dimensions of emotional intelligence received the biggest raises and were promoted more frequently.
Empathy can even be a non-traditional resource for identifying new business opportunities. “The exec team had coaches assigned to us who conducted 360-degree reviews,” says Ann Sarnoff, the President of Dow Jones Ventures, “and it turned out that I was off-the-chart empathetic. My first thought was ‘Damn, why do I have to be so feeling?’ But my coach said I could turn that characteristic into strength and use my empathy to better understand our customers. Since then, I’ve focused that empathy into an intense interest in the end user, which has helped me develop new business ideas and marketing.”
Why being honest about compassion is good for you and for business
I’m not proposing that we turn the workplace into some kind of non-stop group hug. Your job and your private life are different. But encouraging empathy at work can be useful. Neurobiological research is showing that those who psychologically recover more quickly from life’s vicissitudes also tend to have more robust immune function physically. Moreover, immunity levels can be improved. A recent study at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine of patients’ immune systems found that those treated by doctors who had longer and more extensive interaction with patients, and who subsequently gave their doctors high “empathy” ratings, were able to rid themselves of colds a full day earlier, on average, than those who gave doctors low empathy scores. In a 2009 study at a long-term health care facility that looked at the patient, the staff and the family, Sigal Barsade, the Wharton business school professor, discovered that “a culture of caring and compassion had a clear positive influence on the residents, who experienced greater satisfaction, higher quality of life, and more pleasant mood.” If ordinary, authentic human kindness can improve health; imagine the possible ramifications for all kinds of workplaces. American businesses in 2007, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reported a total annual cost in lost work and productivity of $63 billion as a result of lost workdays due to illness. The potential for cheerfulness on the job to be infectious and money- saving seems plausible. Empathy is good for individuals and good for organizations.
Excerpted from It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace by Anne Kreamer Copyright© 2011 by Anne Kreamer. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.