Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Can You Teach Empathy?

Here is a question that was posted on an ASTD LinkedIn board the other day. A couple of training consultants disagreed with my comments and the the entire post was taken down last night.

The Original Post: It's always been our thinking that you can't teach empathy, but it seems to be harder and harder to find applicants who can actually demonstrate it. What do you think?

My response:

Great discussion.

I have a couple of points to add. Inherently, some people have high levels of empathy some have very little to none. In terms of normal personality (i.e., not dealing with sociopaths or clinical disorders), there are suitable jobs for both characteristics. Obviously, in leadership, some level of empathy and the ability to demonstrate this trait with sincerity is critical to building and maintaining relationships.

On the other hand, there are many other positions where the lack of empathy can be essential and productive. Think of: prison guards, special ops in the military, IRS auditors, state highway patrolmen, morticians, etc. These positions are generally better served with individuals who have very low empathy. This is because they do not allow emotions or feelings to interfere with their objective decision making – which in some cases can mean the difference between life and death. In other words, they are hard-nosed, task focus and look at facts and situations, not at how people will be immediately impacted. This helps them not be hit with a sucker punch, a con, or a sob story that will detract from their performance and ability to take control of a difficult or dangerous situation.

Most professions require a moderate level of empathy to be successful. High empathy is frequently found in the more nurturing roles such as: nursing, teaching, child care, social services, and the like. In leadership roles, very high empathy can be a negative in that these leaders frequently have trouble giving timely, candid feedback and they may often sugar coat their comments. Obviously, when this happens, the employee doesn’t get the needed critical insights that would be helpful.

Even in sales positions, you may want an empathic or a non-empathetic candidate. While high “Sociability” is required – extraversion and the ability to meet and greet well—empathy is another matter. For relationship sales, where the sales associate will need to maintain a positive, ongoing relationship with a customer, a sufficient level of empathy is a must. However, for “cold calling sales” which calls for those who can take rejection easily and keep moving on, low empathy is needed. In these type of positions, there is no need to maintain relationships once the deal is made. (Think of used car sales types…) Actually, if a sales person who has a great deal of empathy is placed into a “cold calling role”, they will fail and waste too much time with each prospect or customer to be efficient.

Often, social skill or “charm” is confused with empathy. These are quite different constructs. Think of the charismatic politician who really is a cold fish when it comes to empathy and true concern for others. They love to talk at people and tell their stories and seek center stage, but then want to go away as soon as they are done talking. They thrive on talking at – not with – people.

We measure these “traits” and help right fit people according to their empathy and numerous other factors to help best-fit them into roles where they will be most productive and successful. So, the degree to which someone has or does not have empathy is not necessarily a good or a bad thing in and of itself, it depends on whether or not each person is placed into the right fitting – or suitable -- job role.

Then -- a post came back with:

I am curious how you arrived at some of the conclusions stated in your last post. People in the military (or the highway patrol, another example you cite) who may be called upon to respond instantly with deadly force do not, for the most part "lack empathy." You also give examples of sales roles where you appear to believe low empathy would be an advantage. I am at a loss to understand how you think this would be good for either the employer of these salespeople or for their customers.I have personally served in both of these roles.

The best soldiers (or Marines, in my case) and the best salespeople - whether in relationship-based or transactional, cold-calling environments, were invariably those who cared about other people -- who had "high empathy" and, in the right circumstances, demonstrated it readily. I had one, single example of a salesperson in a cold-calling environment who had low (if any) empathy. He lied compulsively, tricked and deceived customers and internal employees alike, and was utterly indifferent to the concerns of others. When this became apparent, I fired him immediately, of course. But not before he damaged the reputation of the business and alienated a number of our customers.The ability to regulate our emotions, and the self-awareness that allows us to do so, is important to people in practically any profession. This is also true of empathy.

And, I responded,

I arrived at the conclusions based on our extensive assessment data and validity research. We use this data to screen candidates in and out of given jobs based on what correlates to successful performance – so the measures are solid. This is used for external selection screening as well as internal promotional/succession planning decision making.

Low empathy, or compassion, can be a benefit – it can also be problematic depending on what job role one is serving. Or, it can be a non-factor in some cases – again, depending on what the job role is.

Also, scoring low on empathy does not necessarily correlate to “lying, tricking and deceiving.” You may have a low empathy person who is forthright, honest, and acts with the highest integrity. They may be a loner and just not inclined to work in a “team” environment. They may be highly productive and effective – in the right role. For example, research scientist who works in isolation may not be someone you want to hang out with or go to lunch with because of their low empathy, yet they may be brilliant with their breaking ground work.

A low empathy person could, as you noted, also have other negative characteristics. However, high empathy people may also have these negative traits and may be harder to spot. There are, for example, back stabbing, phony, and egotistical people who may charm the socks off of you, while they proceed to attack you or damage you or the team in some way. So, empathy, is not the only or primary lever to dishonest or delinquent behavior.

I agree that self awareness is important to everyone. Again, self awareness does not equal empathy – it is a different set of traits we measure to assess “self awareness” (Adjustment, No Regret, Egotist to name a few scales.) Even if someone has low empathy, self awareness is important so that this individual can pay attention to how their lack of concern for others is impacting performance and communications with others. Having low empathy is not excuse for bad behavior. Rudeness or inappropriate comments or outbursts should not be tolerated.

While most of us prefer to work with people who are warm, supportive, and empathetic, not everyone is hard wired this way and they can still bring tremendous gifts to the organization. They may bring ideas, humor, wit, practical resolve, determination, courage, and many other valuable traits. They may help prevent us from making decisions based on too much “emotion” rather than logic.

Last, when we get into these discussions, we frequently debate issues more over the semantics than the issue. We define and measure as empathy as a clear subscale trait – you, on the other hand, may be including additional characteristics or commonly found traits that frequently accompany the “low empathy” trait.

I’ll throw another one out there for fun…There is a difference between “intensity” and “achievement orientation.” We have had clients who thought these competencies were one in the same. Any takers on this? (Maybe this is another post discussion.)

Thanks for the discussion and comments.


Then, the sarcasm began... and next the string of over 60 posts was gone!

Your comments are welcomed!