Can Empathy Be Taught? Building Compassionate Leaders.

Can Empathy Be Taught? Building Compassionate Leaders.

Once thought an inherent trait, empathy is now considered a “learnable” skills.

Empathetic leaders positively impact their workplace culture and improve productivity.

As discussed in a previous blog, empathy is one of the most critical leadership skills needed today. Research found that managers who show empathy for their direct reports received higher ratings and also were seen as better performers by their bosses. Ninety-six percent of employees consider it important for employers to demonstrate empathy, according to Business Solver’s State of Workplace Empathy Survey. Yet, 72% of CEOs say that empathy in their workplace needs to evolve, a 15 percent increase in 2019 from previous years. To compound the situation, only about 20% of companies offer empathy training.

This brings us to an important question: Can empathy be taught?

Training for Empathy

Many psychologists and researchers believe that empathy can be a learned behavior, which may account for the growing number of professions focusing on building more compassionate and empathetic leaders and employees. In Phoenix, police officers used virtual reality headsets to practice de-escalating scenarios. H&R Block had their tax professionals undergo a “refund surprise training module” to coach how to respond to clients shocked or upset by an unexpected lower tax refund or a higher tax bill. Medical schools offer courses in empathy, and even bus drivers and insurance agents are coached to be more compassionate communicators.

Cultivating Empathy

Whether through advanced VR technology, in-person coaching, dramatic scenarios, or more traditional training methods, empathy has become a significant focus for many organizations in a variety of fields, from teaching to customer service and healthcare. This demonstrates a shift in thinking among organizational strategists and learning experts. Empathy, once considered an inherent quality, is now more commonly viewed as something that can be developed and improved with practice.

Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki, author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, said in an interview, “Through the right practices, such as compassion meditation, diverse friendships, and even fiction reading, we can grow our empathy on purpose. Empathy is something like a muscle: left unused, it atrophies; put to work, it grows.”

There are many ways to build your empathy as a leader or manager, including practicing active listening, making it a point to seek out people who are different from yourself either in social circles or through volunteering, paying attention to your body language, and practicing mindfulness. Reading memoirs, attending the theatre, or watching movies can help you get into the habit of seeing life from other perspectives.

In the End…

Not only will intentionally developing empathy make you a better leader, but it can also have a snowballing, positive effect on the workplace culture. Modeling empathy can encourage employees to show similar compassion and understanding to coworkers, business partners, vendors, and customers, which, aside from reducing workplace stress, also can increase productivity and even profits.

It’s time to show that you genuinely care.

Larry Bograd is Senior Director, Product Development at Syntrio, Inc. He is a twenty-year veteran of the training industry, serving as a learning consultant, director of content strategy, senior instructional designer, and scriptwriter. At Syntrio, he directs its Business Skills Library. He may be reached at lbograd@syntrio.com.

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