Empathy is often touted as a key skill in the modern leader’s tool box, and one which effective leaders deploy easily and smoothly.
You could describe it as the power of understanding another person’s feelings, as if you were walking in their shoes.
It’s seen to facilitate social interactions, strengthen interpersonal bonds, indicate social intelligence and the ability to work with others and contribute to a sense of Psychological Safety.
Yet what it actually means for leaders is complex.
It’s seen as a ‘soft skill’, a label which belies both its complexity and difficulty, even if it’s a word we assume we all understand.
Empathy can be hard.
How empathy works
Empathy is best understood as a collection of processes, rather than a single entity, and how these processes integrate is important.
We’ll look at the component parts, some downsides, and how they integrate, with implications for leaders.
The Mirror Neuron System (MNS)
You’ve probably heard of mirror neurons by now, so here’s a summary.
In 1992, Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues were studying the brain activity for different motor, or movement, skills, in macaque monkeys.
As he reached for his own lunch, Rizzolatti noticed neurons (brain cells) were active in the monkey brain, but not in the pattern he expected.
Neurons were firing in the same areas that were activated when the animal itself reached for lunch.
Except it wasn’t. It was only watching Rizzolatti reach and grasp.
What was so special about these neurons, is that they showed a pattern of activation as if they were doing the same task as the one they were watching.
They came to be called mirror neurons, because the watching monkey’s brain activity mirrored the acting monkey’s. Mirror neurons were subsequently discovered in people, generating exactly the same kind of as if response the macaques got when watching someone else.
The MNS has been identified in recognising disgust, fear and potentially even in moral situations.
A 2019 meta-analysis of MNS research strongly suggests it’s an overstatement to say that the MNS is responsible for empathy. It may be involved at some level, and is associated with empathy, but it’s much less open and shut than saying the MNS leads to empathy.
And here’s where it gets a little more involved.
In the first instance, there’s an element of mimicry with empathy, sometimes called motor empathy. We both mimic and synchronise expressive body language when we empathise. We make the same face as someone else when we feel what they feel, usually unconsciously and automatically. Disgust would be a good example.
In early development, it’s thought we develop a two-way relationship between motor behaviours and mental and emotional states. This helps in developing the ability to infer the states of other people through a set of links between motor behaviour or physical action, and the corresponding mental and emotional experience.
We draw on this set of associations when we empathise with others.
Children develop this early, creating a map of associations. You can see deficits in this in some conditions such as autism.
It’s suggested this is an important base on which we build empathy. It’s not enough of itself, but highlights two more important aspects.
This is the capacity to immediately notice, identify and feel what another feels. It helps build rapport and understanding.
Interestingly, identifying the internal emotional state of someone else may create physiological changes in you that reflect their state.
In other words, you’d have a physiological congruence with them. This enables you to understand them and then to, as it were, emotionally converge with them. Note that it’s feeling with, not feeling for.
However, it relies on you accurately recognising what you see, applying your comprehensive internal map of associations, and generating a response. If your internal representations differ from theirs (as they will) you can never be 100% emotionally matched.
But the better you know them, the more exposure you’ve had to them, the more similar you become to them, the more you understand them, the more you pay attention to them and the better you understand yourself, the closer your congruence will be.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what another person is thinking, sometimes called mentalising or, formally, theory of mind. It’s a higher mental function that enables me to grasp your viewpoint, but also your beliefs and intentions.
It’s this ability to see and understand another’s world that puts us in their shoes.
It’s facilitated by the information we gather in motor and emotional empathic processes, which helps us infer what’s happening for another and predict what they might do next.
Together, the motor, emotional and cognitive elements form the more complete empathic response.
But it matters what else we bring to the table.
Mere mimicry, without anything else, is what we might expect of a young child, as they learn how to interact socially, and come to understand that other people think differently from them. We start to develop this from about age three.
Officially, that’s when theory of mind starts, and when kids realise that the other mind may be open to influence. It’s when they start telling lies. (That’s a normal developmental milestone by way. Your kid isn’t defective.)
By contrast, if all I can offer is emotional empathy, I may not be much help either. What’s important here is the ability to maintain what’s called self-other distinction.
You aren’t them, and it’s important you can tell the difference between what belongs to them and what to you. Otherwise, you’re likely to experience emotional contagion where their emotions, such as distress, become yours, even if they’re unwanted.
I may simply suffer alongside you without the capacity or capability to do anything, or be so emotionally responsive that I burn out from the sheer weight of other people’s emotions.
Different again, is if I have cognitive empathy, but not emotional empathy.
The classic psychopath, for example, numbering 1% of the population, is generally very good at cognitive empathy. However, while they get your viewpoint and may be extremely interested in your beliefs and intentions, they simply don’t care about you or your viewpoint, and may want to know these things to exploit you for personal gain. Salespeople and politicians are overrepresented in the literature on psychopaths for this reason.
But even then, if I simply mimic, feel and understand you, but do nothing, it makes empathy alone of little value.
What’s needed is a good combination of the three, along with motivation.
Compassionate empathy, also called empathic concern, is the ability to understand how someone else thinks and feels as they experience something, and to want to do something to help. Compassion becomes the extension of empathy, impelling us to act.
This lets you understand another’s pain, and their view, and want to do something. It’s a trait recognised in top executives who can share a worker’s position, detach themselves when necessary and still manage to get the best out of their teams. Staff feel valued and respected and perform better overall.
Your manager can understand how you’re feeling and feel some of your emotion, giving a colour to her understanding that makes it much more complete than simple cognitive empathy. It helps her appreciate the circumstances, how you’re affected, and your reaction, and formulate actions to help. She’s also able to separate your feelings from hers, and not become enmeshed in what’s going on for you.
And your people will know when they see it, and when they don’t.
We’re not all the same when it comes to empathy
There are some obvious, natural differences in how well we can demonstrate empathy. Some of us are just good at it. But there are some points to note.
Women and men
Studies do tend to show gender differences in empathy, with women generally outperforming men, while sons who show little emotional reaction to seeing their own mothers in distress are far more likely to end up with a criminal record.
Take a 2006 study, for example. The participants, both men and women, had their brain activity recorded while they received a mild electric shock, or while they witnessed someone else receiving a similar, mild electric shock. As with most social psychological experiments, the ‘someone else’ was a confederate of the researchers.
You know we’d expect the watcher’s mirror neurons to be activated, for some mimicry to occur with body language, some emotional convergence based on your own associations and then recognition of how it all works for the other person.
The twist, and what made the study revealing, was the way the researchers manipulated how much the subjects liked the confederate.
They set it up so that subjects would watch the confederate play a kind of prisoner dilemma game. The liking bit came because the confederate had been instructed to play the game fairly or unfairly, causing the subjects to like or dislike them.
Later, both men and women showed activation of the pain-related centres of the brain when they received a shock themselves, and when they saw a ‘fair’ confederate receive a shock. That’s the mirror neurons in action.
But when the subjects watched an ‘unfair’ confederate getting a shock, the whole game changed.
Now, only the women showed the same activation pattern.
And it isn’t that the men showed no response. There was plenty of brain activity, just not in the pain-related areas.
By contrast, when men watched the unfair confederate get an electric shock, they showed activation of the reward-related areas.
Even if they weren’t prepared to say it aloud, their brains fairly screamed “Yeeeeeaaaaah! Let him have it!”
Or something like that.
Younger and older
More recent research, published early in 2020, shows that our social skills decrease with age, beginning in our late 30s and early 40s. Lead researcher Professor Heather Ferguson notes that older adults spend less time looking at other people’s faces, including eyes, preferring the background.
Given that faces are a rich source of highly nuanced information about feelings and intentions, this suggests they have more difficulty with socially demanding information.
If you imagine people reaching senior management positions in their 30s or 40s, when empathy and social skills matter even more, it’s precisely the time these skills begin to diminish. It becomes even more important for leaders to practice these skills through their career.
There seems to be no decline in cognitive empathy, while empathy for physical pain actually increases with age. This may be related to one’s own awareness of aging and the recognition that pain comes more easily as we age.
But empathy for social pain, decreases.
We know that social pain registers as typical pain. Being shunned for example, hurts; it generates a pain response pattern in the brain.
Other implications for leaders
Imagine you’re in your 50s, managing millennial and Gen Z employees.
As younger people, their social skills are in full bloom, and these generations are insightful and more openly expressive about their internal monologues. They seem disarmingly frank at times. Social acceptance is important to them, (as it was for you when you were that age) and they want to be included, to see the impact and meaning in their work, and have opportunity to grow.
They want to be able to have a conversation with you about how they fit in and contribute, their direction in the role and company, and for you to understand, empathise and help them. Except you find faces increasingly difficult and effortful, you notice less if they’re feeling left out and it doesn’t form part of your empathic response.
“My boss just doesn’t understand me…”
Before you know it they’re looking for another job where they feel safer or fit in better.
But even for older employees too, a simple lack of awareness of social pain may mean I fail to recognise that they’re worried about speaking up; they fear ridicule because they’ve been hurt by offering an opinion before. I just didn’t see it or, if I did, I didn’t appreciate the gravity of it. I may have just glossed over it and not seen the opportunity to develop Psychological Safety there either.
If, as a leader, you’re high on cognitive empathy but low on emotional empathy, you may understand what your team member is saying, but not connect it with any emotion. You might understand that they’re feeling like they can’t speak up, or they’re disengaged, but you may not recognise the impact of this on them.
And so you know it, but don’t do anything much about it or you simply minimise it because you miss its effect.
As for liking your people, it’s unrealistic to believe that we all like everyone we work with. But as a male leader, there are clear risks in how I might treat people I dislike. Perhaps I may need to work on shifting the needle from dislike to neutral.
Males are as capable as females of experiencing emotion, in reaction to the same kind of things, and to the same intensity, so empathy is entirely achievable for men. As a male I may just need to try a little harder, and pay a little more attention to what I’m seeing and hearing. Additionally, asking more and better questions will help me gain a better hold on your emotions and thinking.
And unless I’m paying attention, I may just miss that my people don’t feel Psychologically Safe, including with me.