Empathy often lacking in the leaders

Empathy often lacking in the leaders

A research study carried out by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism asked business leaders what attributes executives must have to succeed in today’s digital, global economy. They identified five: Adaptability; Cultural Competence; 360-Degree Thinking (holistic understanding, capable of recognizing patterns of problems and their solutions); Intellectual Curiosity; and Empathy.

This enthusiasm for empathy among business leaders is universal. Entertainment executives in Los Angeles, IT leaders in Manhattan, PR professionals in Shanghai, digital businessmen and investors in Beijing, start-up founders in Rome and advertising professionals in Paris – they all acknowledged the importance of empathy.

Empathy is a deep emotional intelligence that is closely connected to cultural competence. Empathy enables those who possess it to see the world through others’ eyes and understand their unique perspectives. But why empathy over other values?

First, the audience: in the pre-digital past, communication was mostly a one-way street from seller to buyer. Now communication goes both ways. Today’s audiences demand to be heard or they will take their business elsewhere. You need empathy to know who those audiences are and what they want and you must be sincerely interested in understanding other cultural preferences and choices.

Empathy counts inside a company, too. Many companies have abandoned rigid hierarchies and top-down command, believing that collaboration produces better results than cutthroat competition. In these companies, relationships and persuasion have become essential for success, and to persuade effectively you must be able to empathise.

Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000 who now dominate the workplace, are often caricatured as self-absorbed who can’t be bothered to look up from their smartphones when they’re talking to you. However, they are just as often said to want meaningful work with socially responsible companies who reflect their values. Leading and managing them requires understanding them individually – with empathy.

While empathy is almost universally seen as desirable, it is not distributed evenly among all levels of management. According to an unpublished survey of graduates over the past 10 years who now occupy professional positions, empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives: the very people who need it most because their actions affect such large numbers of people.

Do your team leaders have the necessary empathy to be effective?

Adapted from an article by Ernest J Wilson III, Harvard Business Review

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