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Empathy Is Still Lacking in the Leaders Who Need It Most

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Though empathy is almost universally seen as desirable, it is not distributed evenly among all levels of management. According to an unpublished survey of our graduates over the past 10 years who now occupy professional positions, empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives: the very people who need it most because their actions affect such large numbers of people.


What is empathy? It is a deep emotional intelligence that is closely connected to cultural competence. Empathy enables those who possess it to see the world through others’ eyes and understand their unique perspectives.

Why empathy over other values? We have teased out several possible explanations.

First, the monolithic group formerly known as the audience — the passive customer, the compliant patient, the couch potato — are all relics of the pre-digital past when communication was mostly a one-way street from seller to buyer. Now communication goes both ways. Today’s multiple and highly vocal audiences demand to be heard or they will take their business elsewhere. You need empathy to know who those audiences are and what they want.

Empathetic understanding is also indispensable in increasingly diverse markets, like those of the U.S., Germany, and even Japan, and in other cultures around the world. Neither technical knowledge nor business acumen suffices. You must be sincerely interested in understanding other cultural preferences and choices.

Empathy counts inside company walls, too. Many companies have abandoned rigid hierarchies and top-down command, believing that collaboration produces better results than cutthroat competition of the sort reported at Amazon. In these companies, relationships and persuasion have become essential for success. And to persuade effectively you must be able to empathize. (Catbert, the evil director of human resources in the Dilbert comic strip, suffers from a severe empathy deficit.)

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