I Smell A Rat: Empathy In Business

In collaboration with author Gary Hamel and the Management Innovation Exchange (The MIX), SAP launched a crowd-source initiative which poses the question:

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.

Originally posted on LinkedIn Today on December 8, 2013.

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6 Responses to I Smell A Rat: Empathy In Business

  1. kevinjenscox December 8, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

    Jonathan,

    I’ve pondered this and even worked at cultivating empathy in teams I’ve been a part of. I’ve found the best development of the understanding that finds selflessness in the school of critical thinking. Critical thinking inherently requires the practitioner to explore multiple perspectives. I event wrote a blog here about some of the different “critical thinking perspective tools” one can use. http://bit.ly/1btWswk

    Some might criticize critical thinking as appearing Machiavellian, but I have found that once someone actually explores the meaning of different perspectives around a given issue, their moral compass will begin to assert a natural even more selfless course of action in their behavior. We are, after all, just human.

    Best regards,
    Kevin Cox

  2. Clark Jones December 8, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

    Well put Jonathan

  3. Steve Asche December 12, 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    I’m glad you wrote about empathy because I agree that it’s an essential trait you must have to be a good manager and marketer. I’d like to expand on your recommendation. If I may paraphrase, you claim that organizational structures and silos cause people to focus on their needs and lose sight of the higher purpose. Managers tend to focus on their budget, their people, etc. You propose that if managers were more empathetic towards other managers, that this would help break down the silos.

    I think there’s more to this. You’re description suggests that in large organizations the management may not work like a team. So in order to break down the silos, you need to foster a team mentality which is built on empathy.

    Empathy is a personal emotion. It’s not simply knowing what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, but there is an element of shared experience. Having lunch with someone is not sufficient to building empathy. Serving with them in the armed forces, playing with them on a team or jointly working on a charitable cause are more effective approaches.

    In the 80s, tech companies were big on doing retreats where groups of people had to share team-building experiences that usually involved collaboration to conquer some feat. We’ve gone away from that type of activity because it was dismissed as extravagant hokum. However, there was an underlying effect, it created camaraderie and empathy. I contend that if you want your management to act like a team, you have to introduce a sense of shared personal struggle to achieve a common goal.

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