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

Apr 4, 2014

Empathy 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 an example to feed your soul:

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