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Em-pa-thy

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By the age of two, children normally begin to display the fundamental behaviors of empathy by having an emotional response that corresponds with another person. Sometimes, toddlers will comfort others or show concern for them as early as age two.

So, why do adults in the workplace show little or no empathy to others? Many executives seem to have no concern for the people that work with them, in fact, their emotional response sometimes is more like a two year-old having a tantrum. What happened to their cognitive capability for empathy?

One of the many definitions of empathy is the ability to understand another person's circumstances, point of view, thoughts, and feelings. When experiencing empathy, you are able to understand someone's internal experiences.

How many leaders do you know (yes, please count them and let me know!) have the ability to understand another person's point of view? What happens at your boardroom table when it comes to differing perspectives? Do the leaders show any empathy?

I am not advocating that leaders throw a pity party. What I am suggesting is that in order to understand each other we need to know more about what is going on the lives of the people we work with. We need to be curious about what is happening in each others lives and share the challenges, the celebrations and perhaps even the heart aches.

I suggest most leaders hold a belief that there isn't time for empathy. They don't really want to know that your dog died, your basement flooded, or that your five year old had a fashion emergency on your way out the door to work. Never mind that you're in the midst of a nasty divorce. The bottom line for most companies is that "we are too damn busy for empathy around here."

At the recent Corporate State Summit in Vancouver, Kathleen Taylor, CEO of the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, brought "empathy" to the forefront of the dialogue. We all agreed that we had zero tolerance for blame cultures, the pointing of fingers and the throwing of each other under the bus. More importantly, a new model of leadership is called for -- one that includes empathy.

I invite leaders I coach to practice getting curious about what is really going on in the lives of the people they work with. One of my favorite thought leaders, Margaret Wheatley, advocates that we cannot hate any one whose story we know. So, I challenge you to make it a part of your leadership to bring your inner two year old to work and share a little empathy.