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If You Want Empathy, Talk to Your Dog, Not Your Manager

by Apr 4, 2014, 5:19 am ET

giraffe empathyEmpathy is not a skill recruiters and hiring managers include on job descriptions, which explains why it’s in short supply among American managers.

How do we know this? Because the leadership coaching and outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison did a survey asking workers about their manager’s empathy. “How would you rate your manager’s ability to demonstrate empathy for employee situations?” was the question. Virtually non-existent, was the answer of 52 percent of the respondents.

“Empathy isn’t a weakness, but fundamental to good management,” says Kristen Leverone, senior vice president for LHH’s Global Talent Development Practice.

Empathy isn’t so much a skill as a quality. What’s kind of scary about this survey is that empathy should be fundamental to being human. It is to your dog. Alas, the evidence is mounting that at least among many managers, it isn’t.

On the West Coast, the birthplace of the self-esteem movement and other warm and fuzzy practices, we have Exhibit 192 in support of Leverone’s claim that managers need to learn to look outside themselves. “Failing to do this has serious consequences,” she notes in the survey announcement, “and will undermine trust, collaboration and, ultimately, productivity.”

Those consequences have been put on gleeful display by followers (tip of the hat to Pando and writer Mark Ames) of the class action suit against Google, Apple, Intel, Pixar, and others over their secret agreement not to poach each others’ workers. Exhibit 192 is an exchange of emails about the fate of a  Google recruiter who dared to reach out to an Apple engineer.

The matter reached Steve Jobs’ attention, prompting him to email Google CEO Eric Schmidt to complain. Within hours, the recruiter was fired for violating a (illegal) company policy. Jobs’ reaction? Here it is, written to his head of HR, Danielle Lambert:

Jobs email

Funny how things work. A week after the LHH survey arrived, the Temkin Group announced a $2,500 prize for the best idea to improve organizational empathy toward customers. The Temkin Group is a customer experience research and consulting firm that works with consumer firms to help them improve their rapport and relationship with customers.

The Temkin Group is taking this matter seriously, building AmplifyEmpathy, an entire website to the issue, which, presciently, talks about building internal empathy as well as toward customers.

Says Bruce Temkin, managing partner, “People have a natural instinct for helping other people, but the dynamics within companies dampen the empathetic connection between employees and customers.”

No Roundup would be entirely complete without a video, and for this particular post about empathy, we look today to the animal kingdom for lessons in empathy. Here are two examples to feed your soul:

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Richard Araujo

    The reason empathy is hard to find among managers is because companies treat capital equipment better than employees. It’s understood that a machine that pumps out X widgets an hour has limits and maintenance requirements. An employee who pumps out X widgets an hour is expected to pump out X+1 the next time, and X+2 the next, and X+3 the next, etc., with no down time, no maintenance, never a variation in performance, no kid ever getting sick, and never, ever, having a breaking point where two days off a week doesn’t cut it for revitalization, nor is there any problem that can’t be solved with extra time in the office.

    I would also wonder how much of this ‘lack of empathy’ is actually lack of accommodation for difficult circumstances? A manager may have the utmost empathy for their employer who just lost a family member to a disease, for example. However, company policy on time off for grief and PTO/sick/personal/vacation is what it is.

    “Sorry to hear your kid died, here’s two days to plan the funeral.

    “Oh, and you’re getting close to running out of PTO, and I know it’s the beginning of December and you’ll start accruing time again in January, but we’d still have to have a ‘disciplinary’ action should you go over and need some time to, you know, deal with the fact that your kid died right before Christmas, and you’ve still got gifts to wrap for them laying around…”

    And yes, as with the other examples I’ve given in the past, the above is an actual example from reality. People are tribal in nature and have a lack of empathy for others of their own kind for that reason and others. People will break down into tears if someone launches a kitten into traffic because it’s cute and fuzzy, but not particularly care one way or another about actual human beings, even if they’re being tortured and killed. If they’re just unsatisfied with their job, well then to hell with them, they don’t even deserve empathy, whatever the roots of that dissatisfaction.

  • http://www.verticalelevation.com Carol Schultz

    Thanks for this post John. Empathy is a very complex issue. It was not a skill/distinction that was pointed out/taught to me until I took my first recruiting job in 1992. I suspect this is still the case. Companies say they want retention, but this is one item they don’t pay much attention to. One more reason for companies and execs to hire a good coach/advisor. My most recent private client said to me, “I know what my issues are. Why can’t I fix them myself?” Ultimately she answered her own question when she began to look at great athletes and leaders. They all have someone in their corner dedicated to helping them reach higher levels.

    As for animals, they have instinct not reasoning. Humans have reasoning, which can just as easily harm…

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, John. It is for such reasons that I encourage employees to release our “Inner CEOs”- we work to get as much money, training, experience, benies, connections, freebies, swag, etc. as we possibly can properly squeeze out of them until such time as we get/do better, and “get the hell out of Dodge”.

    No Cheers,
    Keith

  • Richard Araujo

    “Ultimately she answered her own question when she began to look at great athletes and leaders. They all have someone in their corner dedicated to helping them reach higher levels.”

    Very true, Carol. But inherent in that coach/athlete relationship is the acknowledgement that the coach has a valid perspective and valuable experience on how to play the game. Of the people in upper management/CEO/owner level that I’ve met, those who actually want to change are rare. Rarer still are the ones willing to admit that something they’re doing is wrong and contributing to their own problems, and who are willing to take advice and act on it to correct the situation. They are like most humans; when something doesn’t work but they think it ‘should work’ – because they thought of it so how could it be wrong? – they just double down and push harder on their predetermined method. Basically, the Einstein version of insanity.

  • PAUL FOREL

    What Richard said.

    My bet is that empathy is most found where the C’s support their executive staff who in turn support their managers who in turn support their supervisors.

    How can a manager/supervisor afford to show empathy (which has a ‘take an action in response to the situation’ tag to it when that person already knows they will either get dinged for creating a solution that is not ‘off the shelf’ or does not otherwise have the capacity to provide a solution to fit the problem.

    So it is the ostrich.

  • Richard Araujo

    Paul,

    I reminds me of ‘customer service’ training I received when I was still back in college, working retail and in call centers. The agents were never empowered to do anything about a situation, but they still had to “empathize” with the customer. I used to call it learning how to tell people to #$%@ off while smiling.

    Same thing here; even in situations where managers feel genuine empathy and want to do something, what can they do? Nothing, more often than not. And for every one story you hear about someone ‘going to bat’ for their employees, and that leading to positive recognition for them and policy changes, there are a few thousand others you don’t hear where such people get smacked down by their managers for daring to even suggest deviating from stated HR policy or some other such thing.

    That’s why it’s important WRT this article to really know what’s missing: empathy, or the follow through of actually doing something for the employee being empathized with. My guess is most managers will offer a basic I-Feel-Your-Pain to their employees when appropriate, and that it’s the rigidity of policy to accommodate those situations with anything meaningful that’s at issue. The latter is what really matters. Who gives a damn if your manager understands how you feel about this or that situation? Is it fixable and is s/he willing to take steps to fix it? That’s what matters.

  • PAUL FOREL

    Richard,

    Righteo.

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Folks: It’s my perception and experience that the more a company talks about being compassionate and caring, the worse it is when they actually DO **** you. (It certainly is more disappointing.) That’s why I get very annoyed with all those companies that emphasize a perky, upbeat, and cheerful front- they may talk a good line, but it rarely lasts when things get tough and they have to “walk their talk”. Also, companies like this may (as a friend put it) be so stupid they don’t even KNOW they’re ******* you.

    Cheers,

    Keith “Some Companies Aren’t Bad” Halperin

  • Richard Araujo

    Modern ‘customer service,’ Keith. No actual follow through or any service or good of value, just rhetoric.

    Unfortunately I see a lot of this in our profession. I recall one sales guy I new, constantly trying to portray every company he got a job order from as the second coming, never paying attention to the actual details of how they acted; slow feedback, ridiculous interview processes/questions, low ball offers, high turnover, low online ratings at GD and Indeed, etc.

    Of course, if you had trouble filling the position and came back with actual data showing their salary was 20% below market, that you submitted many candidates, and all of the ones who seemed to have promise were lost to other offers while being pushed through a lengthy interview process, the come back would always be, “We should be able to fill this, it’s a great company to work for!” Me being me, I asked, “Why is it a great company to work for?” Never got an answer.

    It’s easier to come up with nice sounding rhetoric than it is to actually do something worth a damn. But, it’s our culture today. People are overly concerned with what’s said rather than what’s done, and want the rhetoric to be seen as reality regardless of how much it conflicts with their actions.