Managing with Emotional Intelligence: The Power of Empathy

by Brusman, Dr. Maynard Tuesday, December 05, 2006
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The business community has embraced the concept of emotional intelligence and its importance ever since Daniel Goleman's best-selling book, Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998). But the challenge that lies ahead is to demonstrate that such competencies can be acquired and when they are, that they significantly impact employee performance.

New studies in corporations that have adopted emotional intelligence training have shown that "EI" can be trained and it is effective. When programs are implemented there are overall improvements in productivity and profits.

Furthermore, up to 90% of the difference between outstanding and average leaders is linked to emotional intelligence. "EI" is two times as important as IQ and technical expertise combined, and is four times as important in terms of overall success.

The research continues to mount as evidence of the effectiveness of EI training programs, yet many leaders in the business world continue to await further quantitative analysis. Before being able to address the emotional competencies that they know are significantly impacting their organizational efficiency, they want further proof. There continues to be reluctance to address anything "emotional" when it comes to business, even when the word "intelligence" is tacked on behind it.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize your own feelings and those of others, and the ability to motivate yourself and others, as well as to manage your own emotions and those of others. Essentially, there are four competencies:

  • Understanding yourself, or self-awareness
  • Managing yourself, or self-management
  • Understanding others, or social awareness
  • Managing others, or social skills

Perhaps it would be better to simplify the concept. Emotional intelligence increases when people commit themselves to building practical competencies in the context of every day situations. Nothing can be more powerful than developing empathy skills during everyday conversations on the job.

One of the foundation skills that contributes to a manager's or leader's success is the skill of empathy. It starts with self-awareness, in that understanding your own emotions is essential to understanding the feelings of others. It is crucial to effective communication and to leading others.

Lack of empathy is a primary cause of interpersonal difficulties that lead to poor performance, executive derailment, and problems with customer relationships.

Empathy as a competency skill is poorly understood by those who need it most, and it is even more difficult to train and acquire. Most people believe you either have it or you don't. Many hard-driving managers lack a propensity for developing empathy because they assume it's for the more "touchy-feely" types. Some very intelligent leaders are walking around blindly using only their powers of reasoning and wondering why everyone doesn't see things their way.

Research by the Center for Creative Leadership has found that the primary causes of derailment in executives involve deficits in emotional competency, and in particular, these three primary ones:

  1. Difficulty in handling change
  2. Not being able to work well as a team
  3. Poor interpersonal relations

Without an adequate capacity to understand the other's point of view, some managers lack sufficient flexibility for change, cannot work well with team collaboration, and cannot relate well with the very people that affect the results they are trying to achieve.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy can be defined as the ability to see things from the other person's point of view — to be able to "walk in someone else's moccasins." Goleman defines it as the ability to read other people. Other definitions include the concept of identifying with the other person or their situation. This implies more than a cognitive understanding, more than just remembering a similar situation that you may have gone through yourself. Empathy means that you can recall some of those same feelings based on your own memories. There is a sharing and identifying with emotional states.

What does this have to do with running a business, managing a company and dealing with bottom-line performance issues? Obviously, if managers were to take the time to listen with empathy at everything that was said, nothing would get done. Furthermore, one cannot fall prey to being swept up into every person's story. Managers and leaders must keep the focus and guide people to goal completion.

According to Goleman, empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work:

  • Understanding others: Sensing others' feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns
  • Service orientation: Anticipating, recognizing and meeting customers' needs
  • Developing others: Sensing others' development needs and bolstering their abilities
  • Leveraging diversity: Cultivating opportunities through diverse people
  • Political awareness: Reading the political and social currents in an organization

Managers and leaders are usually high in those traits and characteristics that lead to successful goal completion, such as high achievement orientation and high focusing abilities. That's why they get promoted to management positions. Success depends a great deal on having focus, being able to persevere, and being able to concentrate. But focus alone can result in undesirable consequences if not counter-balanced by empathy. Focus alone will not result in the fulfillment of goals. Focus and empathy will.

Empathy skills are those that involve paying attention to other people- for example, listening, attending to the needs and wants of others, and building relationships. When empathy skills are high, one is more likely to inspire the troops. When a manager understands his/her people and communicates that to them, he/she is more liked and respected. That is how practicing empathy results in better performance. When a manager is respected, the people they lead are more likely to go the extra mile. Empathy and focus need to be balanced, and when they are, managing skills are optimally effective.

Both managers and employees need empathy in order to interact well with customers, suppliers, the general public, and with each other. Managers need it even more when they are assigning a task to someone who won't like it; when offering criticism to someone who predictably will get defensive; when having to deal with someone we don't like; when dealing with employee disputes; and when giving bad news such as telling someone that they won't be promoted or that they're being laid off. The first step in dealing with any negativity is to empathize. The next step is to focus back to the goals and the tasks at hand.

When someone comes to you with negative feedback, what is the first thing you think to yourself?

  • Here we go again. Another annoying complainer. This is a waste of my time.
  • I'm going to sit here and pretend to listen to this and then give them the facts on their latest performance measures.
  • Why can't he/she pay attention to the really important issues, like getting this project completed on time?
  • Why is it an issue? I need to get more information.
  • What is this person really saying here? Or, rather, what is not being said and maybe needs to be addressed?

The first response is one in which you are focusing on yourself and your needs. Responses #2 and #3 focus on the goals and needs of the organization. All of the first three responses are lacking in empathy. Response #4 focuses on the other person. And response #5 focuses on the other person and the organization. The last response shows the most empathy because it goes beyond what is being said.

At the outset, empathy involves real curiosity and a desire to know or understand. There is a genuine interest in what the person is saying and feeling. You cannot have empathy without asking questions. Some typical ones are:

  • "Can you say more about that?"
  • "Really? That's interesting. Can you be more specific?" "I'm curious about that…let's discuss this in more depth."
  • "Let me see if I understand you correctly…here is what I hear you say…"

Managers and leaders who are high in empathy skills are able to pick up emotional cues. They can appreciate not only what a person is saying, but also why they are saying it.They also understand where a person's feelings might come from.

Those that do not have empathy have a tendency to misread the other person. They do not ask questions to clarify. They do not pay attention to non-verbal cues. Those people who are analytical by nature will listen to the words, facts and figures and completely miss the real message of what is being said.

If we remember that only 7% of the message is carried in the words and the rest is in the non-verbal cues, then listening to the content of what is being said may actually be misleading.

Learning the Skills of Empathy

How is effective empathy learned if you are one of those task-oriented managers who is primarily focused on achievement? The good news is that your achievement orientation and focusing abilities will help you in acquiring empathy skills. The bad news is that it may not be natural at first. Fortunately, empathy is a learned capability and like other competencies, it can be acquired.

Here are some steps to take to begin improving empathy as an effective management tool. Like all the emotional competencies, it is better to practice with an experienced coach who can monitor and give effective feedback. Reading a book and taking a class can both help to gain a greater cognitive understanding of what is involved. However, empathy skills must be learned experientially, that is, practiced in the field in real-time.

Ten Ways to Develop Empathy

  1. Keep a log of situations in which you felt you were able to demonstrate empathyand a log in which you felt you did not. Make a note of missed opportunities to respond with empathy.
  2. Become aware of incidents where there may be some underlying concerns that are not explicitly expressed by others.
  3. Make a note of possible emotions or feelings that the other person may be experiencing. Keep an open mind and never assume, merely explore the possibilities.
  4. Develop a list of questions to ask at your next encounter with that person. Try to make the questions open-ended, that is, questions that can't be answered by yes or no.
  5. Practice listening without interrupting. Wait until the other person is complete with their point of view before offering yours.
  6. Avoid being defensive in order to create an open dialogue where possibilities can be explored freely.
  7. Allow creative time for people to express opinions and ideas without judgment.
  8. Practice active listening: always check out the meaning of what was said with the person speaking. Paraphrasing what was said helps to clear up misconceptions and to deepen understanding.
  9. Always bring focus back into the conversation. Remember that optimal effectiveness is achieved by a combination of focus and empathy.
  10. Work on achieving an effective balance of focus, goal orientation and empathic listening.

The Business Case for Emotional Intelligence

The following examples of return-on-investment studies offer a bottom-line rationale for emotional competency training in hiring, selecting, and retaining personnel, developing performance measurements, and in managing customer relationships.

After supervisors in a manufacturing plant received training in emotional competencies such as how to listen better and help employees resolve problems on their own, lost-time accidents were reduced by 50 percent, formal grievances were reduced from an average of 15 per year to 3 per year, and the plant exceeded productivity goals by $250,000 (Pesuric & Byham, 1996).

In another manufacturing plant where supervisors received similar training, production increased 17 percent. There was no such increase in production for a group of matched supervisors who were not trained (Porras & Anderson, 1981).

The US Air Force used the EQ-I (Emotional Quotient Inventory, Multi-Health Systems, Toronto) to select recruiters and found that the most successful recruiters scored significantly higher in the emotional competencies of assertiveness, empathy, happiness and emotional self-awareness. They found that by using EI to select recruiters, they increased their ability to predict successful recruiters by nearly three-fold. The immediate gain was a saving of $3 million annually.

An analysis of more than 300 top level executives from fifteen global companies showed that six emotional competencies distinguished star performers from average: influence, team leadership, organizational awareness, self-confidence, achievement drive, and leadership (Spencer, 1997).

Financial advisors at American Express whose managers completed the Emotional Competence training program were compared to managers who had not. During the year following training, the trained managers grew their businesses by 18.1% compared to 16.2% of those whose managers were untrained.

In a large beverage firm, using standard methods to hire division presidents, 50% left within two years, mostly because of poor performance. When they started selecting based on emotional competencies such as initiative, self-confidence, and leadership, only 6% left in two years. The executives selected based on EI were far more likely to perform in the top third: 87% were in the top third. Division leaders with these competencies outperformed their targets by 15 to 20 percent. Those who lacked emotional competencies under-performed those that did by almost 20% (McClelland, 1999).