By the time I was in high school, most of my social connections were based on a shared interest: a curiosity about language and culture. The majority of my friends had grown up in a different culture—they were either expatriates or exchange students. We connected because we had a common experience. The linguistic patterns and body language that were natural to us were not at all natural to our peers.
For me, these challenges were due to neurological differences. For them, they were due to culture. The impact was the same. Being understood meant playing detective, figuring out the meaning in others’ verbal and nonverbal language, and adjusting our own body language cues to align with that of our peers.
What we learned through trial and error was that while some body language can be shared, it is far from universal. Anything from length of eye contact to personal proximity could prove problematic if unexamined. What felt automatic to us could be perceived as “closed off,” “shy,” “creepy,” or even “dangerous” to others. In other words, cultural differences impacted empathy.
These early lessons about the importance of culture have carried to my current life, a portion of which takes place in a corporate environment. In our first exchange, Ms. Falvey noted the focus of empathy in many corporate environments. As she also noted, the term can be applied very differently in other contexts. In my experience, corporate culture can also be a big factor in the definition of empathy used and how it is applied.
In some organizations, it does indeed mean “the ability to accurately gauge how one appears to others.” In others, it’s a tool to get the proper performance from employees. In still others, empathy is something bigger, and broader. It’s something that binds employees to one another, drives them in common direction, and connects a corporation to its customers and the community at large.
In a recent TED Talk, “The currency of the new economy is trust,” Rachel Botsman discussed the importance of reputation and trust in the new economy. What does this have to do with empathy? I’d argue a great deal. Trust often depends on connection, and connection is based on empathy—feeling that people “get” who you are, care about you, and are interested in your well being.
If you look beneath the surface of many recent high-profile corporate failures, what are the most common questions asked? They are questions about empathy. Were those making the decisions aware of the damage they would inflict on others? Did they really feel contrite about that damage? Are they working to ameliorate that harm?
What people believe about the intentions of corporate management, and by extension, the company as a whole, can vastly impact consumer perception of the company and its brand. Establishing a corporate pattern of empathy has become even more crucial with the rise of technology, which can enable one dissatisfied customer to reach thousands, even millions, thereby impacting the corporation’s reputation.
Take, for example, the controversy that went viral earlier this month when a family was denied boarding by American Airlines while traveling with their teenage son, who was born with Down syndrome. Their confrontation with airline employees, which left the young man’s mother sobbing, was recorded via cell phone and soon picked up by mainstream media.
Looking at all this, I wonder: Is it possible for an organization to show empathy? To what extent does the behavior of a single employee impact a company’s reputation as a whole? How will technology change corporate culture? In the marketplace of the future, will empathy be a strategic advantage?
"We care for you," companies declare, and to support these claims, many now offer "customer care" in place of what was formerly called “customer service.” New responsiveness, however, will not come from a simple relabeling; a sleight of hand that implies more devoted effort but really aims to capture a larger share of the wallet. Ultimately, behind processes and protocols, a company's care for its customers emerges from the relationships between customers and employees—from the front line to the executive suite. Directed by managers attuned to customer needs, employees can empathetically respond to requests for assistance and calls for redress when customers feel products or services fall short of promises.
Technology increasingly mediates relations between companies and customers, bringing benefits to both. But too often, it has diminished care for customers. In the worst case, voice response or web-based robots intervene between customers and employees. These artificial entities plod along, unmoved by the worries or needs of humans seeking help. Our concerns and needs for help must be squeezed into simple menu options. There is no way to enter into the crucial mode of narrative—to tell a story, to say anything that falls outside the highly constrained vocabulary of today's automated customer service. Complaints falling on robotic ears stir neither imagination nor empathy. All that remains is a tedious exchange of some information that denies the possibility of true conversation.
Of the customer stories that swirl around a large business, some are heard directly by employees, some get recorded in part through voicemail, e-mail, or on websites, but most are neither heard nor noted. Yet amid what a business might see as chaff, there is wheat. In business, as in our everyday lives, certain stories have the power to open our eyes, open our hearts, or deepen our understanding. Still, the prospect of hordes of customer stories breaching company walls may seem alarming. Even if most are dispatched at the front line, too many might find their way to the management offices, filling an enormous inbox with burdensome demands for action. Before dismay and discouragement set in, however, a company should think of a story not foremost as a call for redress, but instead as an invitation to see a situation from another’s point of view, a shift of perspective that may induce sympathy, understanding, reflection, and only then perhaps action.
Even when it impels no immediate action, a story may raise awareness of a previously unrecognized problem or opportunity. Ritz-Carlton, Levi Strauss, Harley-Davidson, and Kimberly-Clark, among others, have taken steps to include customer stories in their ongoing operations and organizational development. Increased attention to storytelling has fostered better care for customers, stimulated ideas for products and services, prompted improvements in operations, and suggested more effective competitive strategies. In these companies, the natural empathy of employees is heightened by an emphasis to "stand in the customer's shoes." Workers are taught to recognize their similarities to customers, to feel distress when customers are disappointed, and to feel joy when their needs are met. Both the organizations and their customers are the beneficiaries of these exchanges.
Given my profound ignorance of corporate culture, I will instead discuss the role of empathy in the biomedical world where I have been involved in research and education for the past thirty years. In the interests of full disclosure, I was not trained for nor am I competent to practice medicine.
There is an interesting and nuanced role for empathy in clinical medicine. An example of the benefits of empathic doctors was discussed in a recent New York Times article. Italian diabetics served by highly empathic physicians had a third fewer complications than did those whose physicians were judged to be less empathic. The most straightforward explanation for this finding is that empathy improves the doctor-patient relationship and therefore patient compliance. Patient compliance means that the patient faithfully adheres to the therapeutic and lifestyle advice of the physician and it greatly increases as physicians display more empathy. Score one for empathy.
We also know that patients who feel more empathic concern from their health-care provider are more likely to share information. Sharing more information gives the physician a fuller picture of the patients’ health, and there really is no downside to this. Remarkably, patients gain more satisfaction from a treatment if they feel understood and cared about. The simple communication from a health-care provider that treating a patient’s pain is an important goal predicted patient satisfaction as well as did the patient’s pain level. Score another couple of points for empathy.
Are there any downsides to empathy? In the practice of medicine, the answer appears to be yes. First, a physician who is too empathetic runs the danger of projection: “How would I feel if I were in the patient’s shoes?” In this situation, the more useful version of empathy, which requires both engagement and detachment, is to ask, “What is causing this patient distress?” The second downside of empathy in clinical practice is that hyperarousal overwhelms us and actually impairs our cognitive skills. The physician who feels deeply for his/her patient—who, for example, may remind the physician of his/her own mother’s terminal illness—might become trapped in his/her own distress, unable to focus on the patient’s issues over their own issues. Finally, empathic concern, like all behavior, has a cost. Exuding empathy with every patient all the time is likely to hasten burnout and limit the physician’s professional career. In short, the constant use of emotional energy to down-regulate one’s own distress takes a personal toll (“compassion fatigue”).
In sum, part of training excellent physicians is helping them understand how and when to use empathy to best serve patients’ needs.
Sociologist Eva Illouz (whose work I referred in my first post as well) argues that emotions are "unreflective aspects of action" and that we find them compelling because they are saturated with their economic and cultural context.
When we think about occasions of empathy, we posit a context in which two actors—the one who is currently in need and the one who empathizes with them—cross paths. It's a kind of hierarchical relation: one person is worse off than the other.
Responding to another's need with empathy seemingly relies on recognizing something of oneself in the other: "I know how that feels," or "I've been there," as if such recognition could level that positional difference, maybe even the whole difference between self and other.
This may sound like a good thing, a democratic impulse overcoming an instance of inequality. Rousseau's phrase comes to mind: "Our true self is not entirely within us." But I worry that demonstrating empathy isn't that simple: what about instances of unsuccessful or misdirected empathic response? When we are moved to demonstrate empathy, how can we accurately gauge what its results will be for the person in need? As Ms. Soraya put it, "What felt automatic to us could be perceived as ‘closed off,’ ‘shy,’ ‘creepy,’ or even ‘dangerous’ to others."
Another issue that complicates a wholly cheery view of empathy is the growth, in the U.S., of service jobs requiring emotional labor. Many service workers, from teachers to manicurists, are paid to provide clients with not only a service but also an experience that relies heavily on the worker's interpersonal skills. Part of their work relies on their ability to perform what sociologist Anthony Giddens called "demonstrable warmth and openness." Giddens was referring not to empathy but to trust. Soraya also mentions trust, in the context of corporate positioning vis-à-vis consumers. My concern is that the service labor market's emphasis on interpersonal skills, including the ability to demonstrate feeling toward others so that it can be experienced as such (rather than as "creepy" or "closed off"), will result in walling out many job seekers who, for reasons of cultural or neurological difference, will be deemed incapable.