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There’s a new buzz word around, well at least in Sydney where I was at a business forum last week.

A number of different conversations were all talking it up. It’s the latest “must have” accessory for future business success.

It’s called empathy.  

Empathy is defined as the ability to take another person’s perspective, to take a walk in their shoes.
It engenders trust and relatedness and is incredibly powerful in building strong and enduring relationships.
It provides us with insight as to what others make be thinking.
It makes us more “people savvy” and is vital to how we make decisions.

Which is exactly why it is so important, for all aspects of our lives.

Roman Krznaric writes, “We are homo empathicus, wired for empathy, social cooperation and mutual aid.”

The problem has been that empathy has been under threat, it has been eroded by the increasing amount of stress people have to deal with on a daily basis, that is empathotoxic.

It’s harder to care for someone else, when your own brain is under siege and you are operating in survival mode. Which is why we sometimes see normal, decent human beings walking past people in the street who are distressed, injured or in need of help.

Empathy is now being taught in some instances (such as medical school !), because as human beings we have a strong in built need for social connection. Being more empathetic cultivates social cooperation and mutual aid -trust me I’m a Doctor. Plus the evidence from the neuroscience has debunked the idea that we are essentially only self-interested.

Bill Drayton from the Ashoka Foundation has launched the Start Empathy Initiative aimed at schools, because he believes mastering empathy is the key business survival skill underpinning successful teamwork and leadership.

Empathetic leaders actively listen, are curious and also vulnerable. Curiosity is something that keeps us engaged with the world around us and according to Martin Seligman psychologist contributes to our feeling of happiness.

A report collated by the Management Research Group in 2013 examined a sample of over 60,000 executives and managers from 4 different countries over a ten-year period and asked the question “What percentage of managers could be considered amongst the top 33% of performers as measured by their ability to focus on both work goals and the needs of people?”

Their finding?  0.77%!
Pretty woeful by any standard and is a reflection of the value business has hitherto ascribed to the importance of knowledge and expertise over social skills.

Which may go to show why so many businesses miss the point on how to engage and motivate staff. It’s not having about financial incentives or providing the latest “Nespresso” machine in the staff kitchen, it’s about understanding their needs, aspirations and desires. Feeling that your boss, colleague, friend values you, respects you and most importantly understands you, is what counts.

And on a slightly different tangent relating shoes and empathy, I recently met the amazing Kathy Wong whose company Moeloco was put together with the sole (pun intended) purpose of building a business that would contribute directly the welfare of children in poverty. Her beautiful Flip Flops, not only leave a lasting imprint (how awesome is that), each pair sold provides a pair of school shoes for the feet of those kids who would otherwise have none. And a child without shoes may be a child without education, where footwear is a requirement for school attendance.

Kathy’s empathy and compassion for others combined with a strong business model is making a difference.

Can you add more empathy to your life?
Yes, neuroscience has shown we can use our understanding of how the human brain works, using our plasticity to rewire our thoughts and habits. This not only changes us, but also how we interact with others.

Elevating empathy can be achieved by bringing our thoughts to our level of conscious awareness and using mindfulness and or loving kindness meditation over a period of weeks.

In addition, volunteering, offering assistance to others in need without seeking reward or compensation, or doing five things a day to help someone else, have all been shown to elevate empathy, compassion and our overall levels of happiness.

As Brene Brown reminds us “Connection, is why we are here.”

Could your company do with some extra empathy?

What strategy could your workplace embrace to create a more empathetic environment?

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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