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Empathy – a new skill for the 21st century world of work?

Empathy – a new skill for the 21st century world of work?

In Business or the world of work?

This is not a word that people associate with business generally or indeed employment law. Nevertheless in recent weeks and months more and more articles have appeared about how empathy is critical in a business context and is also very important in the HR/employment law world.

What is Empathy?

A formal definition of Empathy is the ability to identify and understand another's situation, feelings and motives. It's our capacity to recognise the concerns other people have. Empathy means: "putting you in the other person's shoes" or "seeing things through someone else's eyes." It can incredibly powerful as it has the effect of bringing people together as has been the case with worldwide support for the people in Paris after recent terrorist attacks. It also united football fans when Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest whilst playing for Bolton Wanderers against Tottenham Hotspur in an FA Cup 6th round match at White Hart Lane in March 2012. After receiving lengthy treatment on the pitch, Fabrice was treated at the London Chest Hospital and initially placed in Intensive Care under a ‘critical’ condition. During the cardiac arrest, his heart had stopped beating for 78 minutes.

Empathy and Conflict

How does it help in the world of work? A significant amount of conflict arises because of a failure of one side to appreciate that theirs may not be the only perspective in reality. By switching frame of reference you can sometimes get an insight into what an actual problem is and this can also help you find a solution. If you are recruiting someone and you can understand what they are really looking for, it can help you tailor your package to maximise the chance of winning the recruit. This does not necessarily mean offering more money. It is more important to understand what a person’s drivers are whilst money may be an important factor it is unlikely to be the only one. If you are managing a difficult employee, empathy can enable you to find a creative solution to a potential conflict situation which can easily spin out of control and cost the company significant sums of what is ultimately wasted money.

If you are in a dispute with an individual empathy can help you fight the dispute in the best possible way. If you empathise with somebody you will also understand what their weaknesses are. It will also put you in the best position to resolve the dispute (if resolution is possible).

Two way

Empathy is a two way thing. It works when individuals understand each other’s perspectives or an individual understands a company’s perspective and someone in the company understands the individual’s perspective. It is all very well for a HR manager to understand an employee’s personal difficulties, but if the employee has no understanding of the impact his or her absence/behaviour has on the business then problems and conflict will still arise. In this situation a HR practitioner needs to look at ways of getting the employee to see things from the Company’s perspective.

Empathy and Leadership

In a Harvard Business Review article under the heading “What Makes a Leader?” , Dr Daniel Goleman discusses three reasons why empathy is so important: the increasing use of teams, (which he refers to as "cauldrons of bubbling emotions"), the rapid pace of globalisation (with cross cultural communication easily leading to misunderstandings) and the growing need to retain talent.

"Leaders with empathy," says Dr Goleman, "do more than sympathise with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways." This does not mean that they agree with everyone's view or try to please everybody. Rather, they "thoughtfully consider employees' feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions."


One of the hallmarks of a successful business is its ability to harness creativity, to challenge the status quo, to push boundaries and to innovate. Without growth and innovation, businesses stagnate and eventually fade away. Those with staying power are likely to have mastered this important skill which allows them to focus on the future with clarity: empathy.

Empathy helps us to get along, to understand each other, to work together and to resolve problems. In the world of work, we cannot get along without it.