It was in the early 1900s when the distinguished philosopher, Theodore, was sitting in the grandstand at the circus, watching his favorite act—the high wire.

Theodore’s fascination was not just with the physical skill of the acrobats or their steely nerves.

He was fascinated by how he felt from watching them. His body tensed. His insides froze. His heart rate increased.

Why? He was merely sitting in the stands watching other people perform!

Later, he reflected on this experience, “When I observe a circus performer on a hanging wire, I feel I am inside him.”

This experience led Theodore Lipps, the German psychologist and philosopher, to explore the concept of “Einfühlung” (German: roughly translated empathy).

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His experience watching the circus performers on a high wire gets at the heart of what empathy is all about: the psychologically identifying with another person’s feelings and experiences.

Strangely enough, research indicates that empathy is critically important but woefully absent in most professional environments. It’s rarely talked about, let alone considered as a component of a project manager’s skill set.

If we can understand the meaning, importance, and practice of empathy, we can go a long way towards improving our workplaces.

What is empathy?

If you were to ask several people what “empathy” is, you’d probably hear the word “sympathy” in an attempt to define it.

Even dictionary definitions tend to mingle the two words:

  • Sym·pa·thy /ˈsimpəTHē/ — understanding between people; common feeling
  • Em·pa·thy /ˈempəTHē/ — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

They both sound the same, and it’s easy to use them interchangeably.

At a deeper level, however, empathy is very different from sympathy. The Greek prefix em on the word empathy means “in.” The Greek prefix sun that you read on the word sympathy means “with.” Both words contain the Greek root pathos which means “feeling.”

To state it simply, empathy is a shared experience with someone else. Sympathy on the other hand is a feeling of compassion for someone else.

Put another way…

  • Sympathy has more in common with pity.
  • Empathy has more in common with imitation.

The difference isn’t just etymological, however. The real significance of empathy lies in how our bodies respond at a neurological level.

When the body experiences empathy, it is engaging our mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are activated both by when we move and when we see or think about someone else moving.

For example, if you watch someone on a basketball court jump into the air and sink a three-pointer, your body’s mirror neurons are activated in much the same way that the basketball player’s neurons are. If you are sitting across from someone having a conversation, and the person folds their arms, you may unconsciously fold your arms, too.

The American Psychological Association article, “The Mind’s Mirror,” explains how this neurological phenomenon applies to empathy:

The concept might be simple, but its implications are far-reaching. Over the past decade, more research has suggested that mirror neurons might help explain not only empathy, but also autism and even the evolution of language.

Recent research shows that the body in a state of empathy is attempting to re-experience what the subject experienced. Here’s an excerpt from the research:

Psychologists Tanya Chartrand (now at Duke University) and John Barge (now at Yale University) coined the phrase “the chameleon effect” to describe our imitative empathetic responses. They found that without conscious awareness, empathetic people mimicked the postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others more than nonempathetic individuals. In fact, research Laurie Carr and her colleagues found that deliberately imitating other people’s facial expressions increase their own mirror neuron activation when compared to simply observing those expressions. From infancy on, we spontaneously imitate what others do as long as they are doing things within our capabilities and interests.

Empathy happens at a neurological level, which is far deeper and more visceral than the feelings experienced in sympathy.

The German philosopher watching the daredevils on the high wire was surprisingly accurate in his description. He wrote, “I feel I am inside him,” because in a neurological way, his body was imitating the acrobat.

His body’s mirror neurons were firing in the same pattern and frequency as the high-wire artist, producing some of the same sensations and feelings.

Lipps called it “in-feeling” or “feeling-into.” We can understand it by the term “inner imitation.”

Or we can just call it empathy.

Why is empathy important?

Understanding empathy is the first step to being empathetic. But we also need to understand why empathy actually matters. A good place to start is by realizing how rare it is.

Boston.com declares that we’re facing an “empathy deficit,” especially among “young Americans.” More recently, other headlines state, “the US has an empathy problem,” and pointing to the acerbic election behavior as Exhibit A of this lack of empathy.

According to The Independent, “people who lack empathy see others as mere objects.”  Unfortunately, such a perspective is commonplace in the workplace.

The people are workers. They have tasks. They must achieve goals. The result is profits. Hierarchical structure, organizational charts, employee numbers, boxy cubicles, and job titles, while all necessary, tend to advance this feeling of objectification and dehumanization.

It’s important to understand how destructive this lack of empathy can be. The Independent article, cited above, states that “lack of empathy is the root of all evil.” The article discusses this lack of empathy in situations as tragic as Nazi Germany and as violently deranged as the actions of the murderer Lucy Adeniji. Researcher Simon Baron-Cohen argues that “acts of cruelty can be traced back to how the perpetrator identifies with other people.”

It’s somewhat depressing to see how damaging the lack of empathy can be. It’s more encouraging, however, to see the positive benefits of practicing empathy. Some organizations such as Google have placed an professional emphasis on compassion in the workplace, with astonishing results.

When empathy grows within an organization, you see many of the hallmarks of a “successful” or “outstanding” business. Here are a few of these outcomes of empathy, drawn from research and focused on groups in the workplace.

  • Higher levels of productivity.
  • Rapid conflict resolution.
  • Reduced occurrences of group conflict.
  • Integration of additional perspectives into decisions and projects.
  • Ability to reach group decisions faster.
  • Wider sharing of roles and responsibilities within the group.
  • More meaningful discussions.
  • Reduced anxiety among group members.
  • Enhanced communication through greater ability to understand
  • Less acrimony regarding differences of opinion or worldview (especially on social, political, or religious positions and practices)
  • Less knee-jerk reactions or decisions.

Each of these research-backed benefits is a direct product of greater empathy.

Who wouldn’t want a work culture or a professional group that had those characteristics? More importantly, how do we achieve it?

How to cultivate a culture of empathy

Any discussion of empathy and related topics eventually gets around to the deeper issue of morality.

Empathy touches on morality in a very real way. The degree to which we have empathy produces responses that have moral implications, for example to protect those who suffer from harm.

In a professional context, more empathy produces a medley of amazing benefits as we discussed above. So, how do we encourage greater empathy in the workplace?

1. Encourage empathy by making groups smaller.

Research has shown that tragic tales of individuals are more psychologically motivating than declarations of human suffering on a wider scale.

You may read a news article about “1000 die in earthquake!” and feel regret and sorry. But if you were to read the story of a 7-year old girl named Sasha who loved animals and cared for her baby brother, and how she lost her life in the quake, you would probably register more powerful emotions.

Stalin, who achieved murder on a mind-blowing scale, allegedly said “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

The mind has trouble dealing with larger numbers. The publication New Scientist wrote, “It took the story of a drowned child to end apathy to mass refugee deaths on Europe’s shores.” A single, poignant image opened the floodgates of empathy.

Research attributed to Paul Bloom, a Yale Psychologist puts this into practical perspective. Quartz reports, “It’s also hard to extrapolate empathy to more than a few individuals.” This simple fact of our human limitations should drive us to make some logical decisions:  Make our groups smaller.

We can practice empathy better when we do it among a smaller group. Some researchers are optimistic that we can spread empathy across the entire human race.

Realistically, however, it’s hard to exercise empathy towards a team of 25, let alone a team of 250. Smaller groups, perhaps the 2-7 person range, is probably better.

2. Encourage empathy by identifying emotions.

Much of what we need to experience in an empathetic encounter is the other person’s emotions.

Empathy, as you’ll recall, is an “inner imitation.” One of the best ways to experience empathy, then, is to identify the other person’s emotions. Often, this happens reflexively. We see someone’s face and think, “Gee, she looks happy.” Other times, however, we tend to shut down our emotional receptors and march onward.

If you’re a manager, take time to identify the emotions that you’re seeing in your employees. Put a label on these emotions. “Sad,” “Angry,” etc.

If you’re not picking up on any emotional cues, perhaps you can talk with the individual on a personal level simply to tune into how they’re doing.

3. Encourage empathy by identifying group commonalities.

When everyone in the group is similar, the group can suffer from groupthink. But when members of the group see no commonalities, they may suffer from a lack of empathy.

Why? Empathy research shows that we’re more likely to behave with empathy towards those with whom we have similarities.

Research from Yale and Stony Brook University made this research-driven observation:

Perceiving similarity between oneself and others can lead one to take others perspectives, prompting experiences of empathic emotions.

In a work group, it’s up to the project manager to draw out the group’s similarities. Group members should have some type of common experience to remember, a project to work on, or a goal to achieve.

4. Encourage empathy by practicing restating what others say.

Empathy involves imitation. One powerful way to jumpstart this imitative quality is to do just that — imitate the other person’s speech and behavior.

Here’s a simple exercise that you can do. When someone tells you something, try restating what they just told you.

A hypothetical example would sounds like this:

Okay, so just to make sure I understand, you have completed the first five reports, but you’ve found some discrepancy in the data for the sixth. You want to run the data again before you produce the report, so it will be tomorrow afternoon before you’re completed?

If possible, add feeling and more detail to your restatement in order to gain more clarity on what the other person is saying.

The more you get into their minds and experience their life, the greater empathy you can have for them and their situation.

5. Encourage empathy by developing a culture of happiness.

Will Chopik, a professor at Michigan State University, produced a study which made it clear that happiness is a major predictor of empathy.

In other words, if your group is happy, it will probably have more empathy, too.

Simply generating a “happier workplace” doesn’t happen overnight, but there are some practical things that you can do such as encourage more non-professional interactions, give them leash, take a stand, and take time for fun.

The methods for fostering empathy are deep, just like the roots of empathy are deep within the human psyche.

Everyone hopes that we can learn to become more empathetic. Perhaps the best way to cultivate a culture of empathy is to model it, as best way know how, for our employees, our colleagues, and our families.

Practicing empathy hurts. It hurts because we live in a world full of hurting people. Inwardly imitating their hurt causes us to feel the hurt as well.

By bearing the hurt together and sharing the pain collectively, we can create working environments that are more than just hives of activity, but are places of safety and understanding as well.

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