Why is empathy so hard to experience?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another.

Empathy is prescribed as an essential attribute for leaders and managers.  When you are able to understand and identify with the thoughts and feelings of the people you work with, you will succeed.

Empathy is such a natural human response to life,why then is it prescribed? After all, nobody prescribes breathing as a way to live. We breathe on our own. And so do we empathise on our own, don’t we? We instantly empathise when a stranger on a train or a flight speaks about a recent bereavement. We maintain peace and quiet for a colleague hard at work, even though usually we like to ruffle their feathers; because we know that their next meeting could be career-defining. We can identify. We can relate.

On the other hand, social life and work-progress is also based on moderating or disregarding empathy. A hard thing to accept, for sure!

Our much loved team leader has fought hard at a meeting of higher-ups. He did his best for all of us to retain our peformance ratings and get our promotions. He did not succeed. When he meets the team next, if he is full of empathy and nothing else, he won’t be able to function. He must move beyond individual expectation to focus on and accept the so-called larger good. Depending on the make-up of this team-leader, he might be able to achieve that acceptance by being detached or by empathising with the higher-ups and their positions. In either case, pure empathy is diluted at an individual level or expanded at an abstract,collective level.

Doctors wisely decide to not operate on their loved ones as strong empathy may interfere with the calm composure required during surgery. A court case allows for proceedings to be conducted in a way that encourages people to not get swayed by emotions .Those frisking people at security check-points need to guard against softening up while checking people and luggage. People intent on terror want to use deceptions of all kinds to get past the barriers. You don’t want your security personnel to empathise with the people and feel the inconvenience and distrust of scrutiny. They will simply not do their job well.

Empathy can lead to paralysis as well. A manager has two subordinates. One is outperforming and loves to be publicly acknowledged. The other is doing well but is unusually senstive about relative treatment. This manager can empathise with both subordinates. He wants to praise the performer in public but is wary of how the other subordinate will feel neglected. What does the manager do? Stop having meetings or occasions where a public comment has to be made. Not a good thing if we want to be open and transparent about how we are doing. And guess how the manager is rated on the empathy scale?

During tough times, a business set-up has to let go of people. This time calls for the most nuanced empathy. And yet, people falter by rushing to the most extreme ends of the spectrum. There are managers who have to fortify themselves before they break the bad news. They pysche themselves up to be in a cold, insensitive space from where they are able to go through the motions and ask people to leave. And there are managers who go to pieces because they cannot bear to look their people in the eye. They end up being even more insensitive by messaging or emailing the news or ask somebody else to be the news-bearer.

What is required is a manager who communicates reality and hope in equal measure. This requires nuanced empathy. Here is how it may read as thoughts in the manager’s head – ” I know how hard it is for you. I also know you have people depending on you and your job. If I focus only on what you are going through, I am not thinking clearly about what needs to be done next. Let me be detached and be able to focus on what next”

On paper, empathy is an unalloyed good. In reality, social life and work transmute the expression of empathy in ways that make it difficult to experience empathy as an unmitigated blessing. A higher degree of self-awareness and maturity is called for in people and organisations so that they renegotiate the meaning of empathy and reconfigure the expression.






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