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