Empathy is generally defined as the extent to which one has the ability to understand and accept another's feelings and emotions. Some view empathy simply as one's ability to "put themselves in another's shoes," or view an issue from another's perspective. However, some researchers suggest that perspective-taking is a cognitive process that precedes empathy, which is an affective or emotionally-based response to perspective-taking.
Empathy has been a subject of interest in a variety of different fields, but has only begun to be examined by those in the management area. Early childhood development researchers have concluded that empathy is a function of cognitive maturity; that is, the ability to take another's point of view requires a certain degree of cognitive complexity. Yet, from a moral development perspective, people are thought to progress from an egocentric form of morality toward a level of moral development where one examines issues from a variety of perspectives. Empathy is an attractive subject for researchers interested in the study of management because cognitive complexity and morality are generally considered to be important aspects of effective leadership.
Interest in empathy in the field of management stems from the growing popularity of the emotional intelligence concept, which has been popularized by Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence. According to Goleman, empathy—one of the basic components of emotional intelligence—is a critical part of social awareness, and, as such, key to success in life. Goleman extends the definition of empathy to include not only understanding others' feelings and behavior, but also intelligently using that understanding to forge stronger interpersonal relationships and make better decisions. Empathy is a particularly important factor in the success of those people who work in jobs where there is a high degree of interaction with other people—such as nursing, teaching, or management.
Although technical skills are considered less important as a person rises within an organizational hierarchy, the ability to empathize, on the other hand, is thought to be a more important determinant of success. Empathy is considered to be a quintessential managerial competence because it is a fundamental people skill.
Empathy is thought to have both a genetic and an experiential foundation. However, Goleman stresses that as a capability, empathy can be enhanced through desire and training. Research indicates that self-awareness is positively related to empathy, suggesting that empathy may be a function of the degree to which a person can read and manage his own emotions. Training that focuses on empathy building has been suggested as a means of fostering this social skill.
A person who is skillful at empathizing makes others feel respected and worthy of attention. The development of this skill requires effective communication. Thus, training managers in communication techniques such as active listening may contribute to building empathic competence.
Research examining empathy has largely been embedded within efforts to gain a greater understanding of emotional intelligence. Studies indicate that empathy is positively related to intrinsic motivation and effective problem-solving, supporting the view that empathy is an important aspect of effective leadership. The need for empathy is increasingly important in the workplace as the use of teams and self-directed work groups, where social competencies are a critical factor in success, are on the rise. Globalization, and the difficulties associated with intercultural relationships, also make empathy an increasingly critical managerial competence.
Jerry Bryan Fuller
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.