EQ

Empathy in business: misplaced or irreplaceable?

There’s been a lot of talk in the news lately about empathy. It’s fascinating to see how much impact such an ethereal thing can have on people.

But what about business? We want to measure everything and have numbers to support every decision. There’s no line on the balance sheet for “empathy”.  So should we bag it?

This article from The Atlantic outlines cognitive psychologist David Bloom’s arguments against empathy. He says we are more likely to make bad decisions when we are being empathetic, for example being swayed by a “small” issue because we can feel the other person’s pain, while ignoring “big” issues that may actually be more catastrophic.

And game theory shows us that when playing a zero-sum game, the player who consistently takes the “up” (win) position will win much more often than a player who sometimes takes the “down” (lose) position. In business, consistently taking the “down” position because you are empathetic to the other side can indeed result in losing. A lot. This suggests that we should always take the “up” position.

But what if business isn’t always a zero sum game? Indeed, I believe it usually is NOT. What if your “opponent” is within your company? If you win but they lose, have you really added value for your organization? What if your “opponent” is your customer? If you win but they lose, how long will they be a customer?  How long will you be in business? This is one of the reasons I suggest the premise that the only true aim of a business is to create profit is BULL. I won’t go into a long discussion of that, but in short, In order to create long-term value we must find the win-win. It’s true for what we offer to the market. It’s true for big negotiations but also day-to-day interactions. And, in order to find the win-win, understanding what is important to the other side is important. One might call this empathy.

There has been quite a bit of focus on EQ in addition to IQ since Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence. At it’s heart (and with science behind it,) it suggests that the ability to read other’s emotions and manage them is critical to being a great leader. I agree 100% and I suggest that to do this well, we must not just read but truly honor their emotions even if we don’t hold the same ones. Reading and then ignoring their emotions does nothing.

We must not, however, forget our own aims. We must not forget reason. This is the danger of empathy–that we sacrifice our own needs completely. Bloom suggests that we can do good for others based on other things. To do good, he said, “we need an emotional push. But the push need not come from empathy. It can come from love, from caring, from compassion, from more distant emotions that don’t come from being swallowed up in the suffering of others.”

At the end of the day, I believe love, caring, compassion and even understanding your customer are only possible with empathy. So, I don’t think we should bag it. I think we need empathy as one of the critical tools in our leadership toolkit.