Published on January 31st, 2017 | by Nancy F. Clark0
Are You Using Apple’s Secret Skill At Work?
By Jessica Amortegui—
It’s a truism growing increasingly popular in organizational life: “Keep it Sesame Street simple.” Heeding that ethos literally, I turned to the timeless series to see what it had to say about an increasingly important skill in today’s collaborative and connected workplaces— empathy.
In this 2013 YouTube clip, which garnered nearly 2.5 million views, Mark Ruffalo patiently describes empathy to the energetic red monster, Murray. To get Murray to understand empathy, Ruffalo has Murray imagine the emotional pain of losing a coveted teddy bear. To this, Murray’s face bears a twinge of pain, and he empathetically responds, “I know exactly how you must feel!” Murray then begins to weep, evidence that he has not only expressed, but also internalized empathy—the ability “to care about and understand how someone else is feeling.”
In the workplace, empathy is often portrayed as a requisite tool for emotionally intelligent leaders. But perhaps more notable is the strong effect on performance. Research from the Center for Creative Leadership analyzed data from 6,731 managers from 38 countries and found that empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers by their bosses. Studies also find that displaying empathy at work creates psychological safety—the most essential ingredient of highly effective teams, according to a two-year Google study. And it’s not just individuals and teams that benefit, but entire organizational cultures. Wharton Professor of Management Sigal Barsade’s research finds that managing a company’s “emotional culture”—how people feel, not just how they think—positively influences measures such as engagement, absenteeism, creativity, and decision-making.
Given the benefits, it’s no surprise that successful companies are finding ways to strategically cultivate empathy. It is the cornerstone of IDEO’s approach to human-centered design and a leaked secret that undergirds Apple’s Genius Bar training. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how empathy could be considered anything less than an unassailable force of good. But, perhaps surprisingly, some research shows otherwise.
Consider a classic experiment from 1995, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Subjects were told about a 10-year-old girl named Sheri Summers who had a fatal disease and was low on a waitlist for treatment that would alleviate her pain. When subjects were given the opportunity to give her immediate treatment and put her ahead of children who had more severe illnesses or who had been waiting longer, they usually refused. But when they were first asked to put themselves in her shoes—modeling Murray’s newfound skill “to imagine how she felt”—they usually said yes.
In this experiment, an unintended byproduct of greater empathy becomes one of the most pervasive derailers of workplace wellbeing: a perception of unfairness. We deem things unfair when we believe there is a biased treatment of employees. For example, when one person is promoted despite the presence of other people who seem more deserving, or when one group receives more resources without a seemingly clear-cut rationale. Not surprisingly, the stronger we are able to feel what others feel, the harder it is for us to divorce ourselves from bias and remain objective. We love our friends, our kids, and our family more than we love strangers. And at work, we have “love” for some more than others. As our empathy for these people expands, it’s nearly impossible to conceal our heartfelt bias.
According to developmental psychologist Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy, it’s not just our objectivity that empathy compromises, but potentially our moral fortitude. A 2014 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows us how. Subjects were told about a financially needy student who was entering a mathematics competition for a cash prize. Subjects were motivated to feel empathy for the student, while at the same time motivated to torment the student’s competitor—by assigning large doses of hot sauce for her to consume—even though she plainly had done nothing wrong.
The research shows how effortlessly empathy can lead us to favor one person at the expense of another. But here’s an unexpected twist: the other can also be ourselves. Research conducted by Adam Grant and Reb Rebele on “generosity burnout,” drawn from Grant’s book Give and Take, depicts three kinds of employees found in organizations—givers, matchers, and takers. The good news is that the first kind—the generous and empathetic “giver”comes out on top. Givers are more successful and add more value to organizations than the other two. But there’s a catch. They are also at the most risk for burnout.
The challenge with givers comes when they don’t prioritize their own well-being. As a result, their investments in others can cause them to feel overloaded and fatigued, fall behind on their work goals, and face more stress and conflict at home. They unknowingly engage in a form of self-sabotage.
Does this mean we should drop our aspirations of creating more empathetic and generous leaders and workplace cultures? Absolutely not. Like all things in life, the science reminds us of the shopworn platitude that there can be too much of a good thing.
The fact that our heart can override our head is certainly a potential pitfall of empathy, but it is also a tender reminder of our vulnerability as humans. As vulnerability researcher Brene Brown uncovers in her research, when we lean into our vulnerability we experience more “love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity.”
So go ahead—imagine what it would be like to work in a place infused with more trust and belonging. If doing so brings you an overwhelming sense of optimism, my response back at you is Sesame Street simple: “I know exactly how you feel!
Article photo by noraes