What is the one thing you’d change to help organizations unleash and organize human potential across boundaries?
As I was researching my own answer around the notion of “empathy in business”, I found a Washington Post article titled:A New Model of Empathy: The Rat. It discusses a Science/AAAS study which showed that rats would rather free other caged rats than eat food made readily available to them. The rats demonstrated a specific type of empathy characterized by “selfless behavior” or “helping activity” – a trait previously only associated with primates. Psychologists refer to it as prosocial behavior.
Rats as an exemplar of empathy!?! If rodents can exhibit the capacity to understand and feel the emotions experienced by their fellow rats – even when they aren’t getting anything in return – then we humans certainly have little excuse.
Sure, there are studies that say leaders must show empathy and that people who lack this trait are not good managers. There is also data connecting emotional intelligence to the bottom line of organizations. While this is all true, it’s not the primary reason why I think empathy is critically important in business.
Empathy is important because businesses get weighed down by complex organizational structure and silos. We get caught up in fighting for our own individual needs, as opposed to looking at the bigger picture and “higher purpose” associated with what we’re doing. For example, managers are often protective of their own budget even if reallocating a portion outside their team will create greater impact overall. Instead of having an end-to-end view of what will maximize group or company success, we focus on what will increase our own success. Decisions are driven by thoughts about “my” people, “my” budget, “my” agenda.
In simple terms, empathy means putting yourself into someone else’s shoes. If you take a moment to see their perspective, you will see more of the big picture. From there it becomes much clearer what is in the best interest of the business. Showing empathy requires a fundamental change in mindset. The more we can actively remove ourselves from our own silos, the better off we will collectively be.
And by the way, the next time you think you “smell a rat”, behave like one instead. You’ll be leading by example.