Sympathy Is for Corporate Wimps

It is easy to make a snap judgment regarding the title of this blog, but stay with me -- I think I may be on to something. A staggering $140 billion was spent on corporate training initiatives in the U.S. in 2013, with about $1 billion for top executive development; in other words, money spent on the very corporate rank that is instrumental in leading companies to higher standards, which typically means "more profits." Even though I concluded in a previous post, "Great Company Required," that happy employees make better companies, and better companies make more money, it is still a difficult concept to grasp, and, more importantly, hard to effectively implement and measure as a part of corporate culture.

Let's just consider your typical work-related training session. For the most part, we are taught to sell more effectively, establish our own brands, and to brush off the unforeseen in a collected but directed manner (often while a camera keeps record of mostly awkward moments). To be clear, there are proven benefits to executive education, but it remains questionable whether companies (and the training industry) are focusing on the most effective outcomes. One of the oft-cited conditions for employee satisfaction, and an important leadership quality to begin with, is for top management to be (or become) relatable -- to "level" with employees, not only in a quest for a "feel-good" corporate culture, but also to better capture ideas and anticipate developments (the good or bad) in all areas of an organization.

Executives are generally trained to sympathize: to say the right thing at the right time, and provide support and coping structures for employees presented with challenging situations. Today's corporate version of sympathy, however, often consists of the ability to select appropriate emotional responses as opposed to really "being in the trenches" with an employee during times of misfortune. Sympathy, as I am beginning to understand, is just not enough. The philosopher Adam Smith, in his 1759 publication, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, describes sympathy as a basic natural tendency (the "fellow-feeling"), but also alludes to the inherent limitation that "our senses will never inform us of how he [our fellow] suffers." There, quite apparently, needs to be more.

Empathy, often incorrectly used as a synonym for sympathy, may be the better response in corporate life, which increasingly calls for more authenticity. In fact, empathy is considered to be one of the most valuable things taught at acclaimed Harvard Business School these days. Different from just selecting responses, an empathetic leader will be able to see the world as others see it and truly make a connection with an employee in need: non-judgmental and "leveled." As opposed to perceiving empathy as being "wishy-washy" or "mushy," when placed in the context of corporate culture and leadership, there is now an effective way to measure a company's empathy level: A recently developed Empathy Index aggregates data from three incoming channels, considering input from clients, employees, and social media.

If you are a corporate leader responsible for an employee's professional development, or an engaged peer, you may want to pause and reflect on your last challenging interaction at work. It is easy, and likely more time-effective in the short run, to forego empathetic engagement for more rational and concrete measures (i.e., the selected and trained responses). Regrettably, it has become a common understanding and corporate, practice that goals have to be reached, no matter what the damage to employee satisfaction may be (we take care of our people later, right?). On the other hand, practicing empathetic engagement, especially in the workplace, is still considered a weakness rather than a virtue. But we cannot dismiss recent research showing the clear commercial benefits of empathetic management, including not only increased client and employee satisfaction, but also real profits gained in corporations that practice empathy.

The good news: "empathy deficits" can be reduced through training, and will pay off, especially when coming from the top of an organization