Empathy: Not Such a Soft Skill

Bell_110.jpgKatherine Bell is Deputy Editor at Harvard Business.org.

Empathy is the word of the moment in the media, as President Obama and the GOP disagree over whether Supreme Court Justices should use it.

In this debate, empathy has come to imply an emotional impulse to root for the underdog. Ron Elving wrote at NPR.org: "In the parlance of their party, Democrats use this word to mean sensitivity to the plight of the poor, the disadvantaged and the downtrodden... Republicans, for their part, regard empathy as a code word for emotion." To explain Obama's all-female shortlist of candidates for the court, Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center pointed to a 2008 finding that 80% of Americans believe that women are more compassionate than men, arguing that "Empathy and compassion aren't synonymous, but they're close cousins."

All of this makes empathy sound like the softest of soft skills.

But here's the Oxford English Dictionary's definition: "The power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation."

Nothing in that definition tells us how we're supposed to judge the object of our empathy once we've imagined ourselves into his or her point of view.

As a writer and teacher of fiction, I've learned that empathy isn't about being nice or tolerant. It's not about feeling sorry for people or giving them the benefit of the doubt. It's an act of imagination in which you try to look at the world from the perspective of another person, a human being whose history and point of view are as complex as your own. When you write a piece of fiction, you need to imagine yourself into the minds of the bad guys as well as the good — without forgiving or excusing or oversimplifying them. It's tremendously difficult, which is why so few novels contain a variety of equally convincing characters.

It can be disturbing, too. A friend of mine, Yiyun Li, recently published a novel, The Vagrants, in which she brings the reader fully inside the mind of a young pedophile as he walks the banks of a Chinese river, hoping to find an abandoned baby girl he can take home and bring up as his own. (Publisher's Weekly called the book "magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim.") Yiyun's writing didn't make me feel sorry for her character or excuse his behavior. It made me understand the story in a completely different way. And it made me complicit — or, to put it in business terms, accountable.

Last week, David Brooks argued in the New York Times that successful CEOs are "organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring" instead of "warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic." It's not at all clear to me why he considers these mutually exclusive. And I'd argue that at all levels of management empathy is a critical skill. If you can imagine a person's point of view — no matter what you think of it — you can more effectively influence him. Empathizing with your team, your boss, your coworkers, and your colleagues won't make you a pushover — it'll give you more power.

In his 2001 HBR article, "Leadership in a Combat Zone," Lieutenant General William Pagonis, Director of Logistics during the Gulf War, wrote:

Owning the facts is a prerequisite to leadership. But there are millions of technocrats out there with lots of facts in their quivers and little leadership potential. In many cases, what they are missing is empathy. No one is a leader who can't put himself or herself in the other person's shoes. Empathy and expertise command respect.

Put that way, it doesn't sound quite so soft, does it?

By Susan Jackson  |  May 29, 2009; 7:45 AM ET
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