Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Empathy as Leadership

Empathy enables you to know if the people you’re trying to reach are actually reached. It allows you to predict the effect your decisions and actions will have on core audiences and strategize accordingly. Without empathy, you can’t build a team or nurture a new generation of leaders. You will not inspire followers or elicit loyalty.
~Prudy Gourguechon

Empathy is a leadership skill necessary for connection, understanding, cooperation, and conflict resolution. Empathy is the capacity to accurately perceive another person’s experience, feelings, and perspective.

Emotional empathy, also known as compassion, is intuitive and involves the care and concern for others, whereas sympathy is limited to feeling sorry for another’s suffering. Emotional empathy may be triggered in the brain with the release of the bonding neurotransmitter oxytocin.

We are wired for empathy, which was demonstrated in a harm aversion study. Researchers trained rats to press a lever to get a sweet pellet. Then they rewired the lever to deliver an electric shock to the floor of the rat in the cage next door every time the first rat used the lever to get the treat. The hurt neighbor rat squeaked with every shock. Rats stopped using the lever to get the treat once that process began to hurt their neighbor rat, and this was true for both neighbor rats that had shared their cage and for total stranger rats.

Brain scan experiments in humans have shown that a region between the 2 hemispheres (anterior cingulate cortex) is activated when we experience empathy for others. When researchers numbed this area in the rat experiment, the candy-seeking rats stopped avoiding harm to their cage mates. Emotional empathy, demonstrated by the decision to avoid harm to others, is experienced deep in the brain and shared with other animals.

Cognitive empathy is the active quest to appreciate a common humanity, requiring effort and systematic inquiry. We can be socialized or trained to develop cognitive empathy skills by the culture and values present in our home and work environments.

The practice of vicarious introspection encourages you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, making sure to assess how that person would feel in their shoes, not how you would feel. Mindfully and actively listening to another places your focus on understanding that person, not on preparing a response to her.

Deploying cognitive empathy means gathering data about other people in your organization (family, business, or volunteer) to help you understand the human context, communicate effectively, build trust, make better predictions, and create inclusive strategies.

Takeaway: To empower your cognitive empathy, practice active listening and vicarious introspection.

Sources

Prudy Gourguechon, Empathy is an Essential Leadership Skill – and There’s Nothing Soft About It, Forbes, Dec. 26, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/prudygourguechon/2017/12/26/empathy-is-an-essential-leadership-skill-and-theres-nothing-soft-about-it/#7f6cfe952b9d.

Kristen Rogers, Empathy is both a Trait and a Skill.  Here’s how to Strengthen it, CNN Health, June 24, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/24/health/develop-empathy-skills-wellness/index.html

Julen Hernandez-Lallement, Augustine Triumph Attah, Efe Soyman, Cindy M. Pinhal, Valeria Gazzola, and Christian Keysers, Harm to Others Acts as a Negative Reinforcer in Rats, Vol. 30 Iss. 6 Current Biology 949-961, Mar. 5, 2020, https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(20)30017-8.

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