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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Empathy and Selfishness in Leaders


There was a time (or is there still?) when empathy was by some considered soft stuff that didn’t bring about any results, profits, or successful strategies. It was reserved for women, for softies, and for certain fields of business at the best. I believe that most people now, whether in business or in private, are aware of the importance of empathy. The word empathy stems from Greek, referring to passion and emotion. Empathy can be described as the ability to identify with another’s feelings, to emotionally put yourself in the place of someone else. I assume it’s quite clear how empathy makes the world go round smoother. What would a parent be without empathy for her sick child (or better: what would that child be?). What would a teacher be without empathy for the student that failed his test? What would a boy be without empathy for his friend who is being bullied? And, it of course doesn’t just apply to emotions that are considered negative. What would it be like if your friends would not be empathetic to your joy about a new career, a new love, a negative cancer screening, or the birth of your child?

Empathy in everyday life seems pretty clear cut, even though not everyone is equally well equipped or willing to feel and show it. How about empathy in business? How about empathy at the leadership level? I’m happy to say that more and more business authors write about matters like empathy on the work floor and in the board room and that more and more leaders understand the significance of these and related concepts and skills. The notion of the tough business leader has been replaced by a business leader who adds interpersonal skills and a high emotional intelligence to the more traditional business insights, skills, and attitude.

In that light I’d like to share part of an interview relating to empathy in leaders. David Kovacovich, organizational strategist for Michael C Fina, certified coach, and blogger interviewed Dan Pink, author of four provocative bestselling books about the changing world of work. Here is what Dan Pink said about the importance of empathy for leaders:

“Empathy is hugely important. It’s very hard to lead without being able to see the world through the eyes of those you’re leading. That’s especially true for creative teams. And it’s doubly true for the growing ranks of people who are leaders but who don’t have much formal authority — and therefore must rely on influence rather than command. There’s also some recent research, led by Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University that shows that as people accumulate power, they’re less likely to see the world from another’s perspective, which can often hamper their abilities to get others to go along with them. Leadership turns out to be a very delicate balance between action-orientation and perspective-taking. Too much of one rarely works”.

A lack of empathy can easily result in selfishness, although there are more roads to selfishness as well as more consequences of a lack of empathy. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, people, profits, and possibilities are killed by selfishness. And add to selfishness the wrong kind of pride and it drives denial, avoidance, blindness, blaming, and cover-ups until it's too late to act effectively.

Need I say more?

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