Empathy: Why it is important

Copyright 2011 TIGERS Success Series

By Dianne Crampton

It was one of those good days. A day when a former client calls and says, “That empathy performance question we put into our employment interviews probably saved us thousands of dollars and a lot of conflict.”

“Really?  How’s that?”

“The candidate’s resume was stellar. He looked great and presented himself very well. But when we asked him how he demonstrated empathy in the last six weeks with friends or family, he was stumped.” So, what does empathy have to do with a potential team member’s job fit?

Empathy is a universal team value that promotes high commitment and cooperation in the workplace. It is the ability to understand another person’s perspective or circumstance whether you agree with this person or not. Empathetic people are curious and possess a desire to know and understand others. It is important to successful conflict resolution because understanding diverse perspectives allows collaborative solutions to rise from chaos.

Likewise, the ability to beam your self into another person’s shoes lays the foundation for moral decisions and is a condition for peace. Like Obama’s grandmother who, when counseling the moral character of her grandson, said, “How would you feel if that happened to you?”

People who lack the capacity to flip situations and try them on for size are doomed to shallow relationships, deeds of shady moral character, cruelty, or a psychological condition known as narcissism. Narcissists are often poor listeners and poor communicators because they are unable to comprehend or listen to another person’s emotional pain. And, when taken to extreme they are unable to recognize the shame and pain they pile onto others because they are unable to access and face the shame and pain within themselves.

Bad things that happen are always another person’s fault. And, narcissists tend to do well in hierarchical power positions because success is proof they are better than others. From a team perspective, however, they drive the people around them crazy, which justifies their thinking that everyone else is the problem — certainly not them.

In Emily Yoffe’s Slate Magazine’s article, But Enough about You: What is narcissistic personality disorder, and why does everyone seem to have it?, Yoffe names a host of leaders that fall into the narcissistic category. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, and former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich are a few. And she reports that an article posted in the New York Times claims that Blagojevich’s self pity he demonstrated on multiple talk shows after being ousted for allegedly trying to sell a senate seat “did a better job illustrating narcissistic behavior than any psychological text book.”

Maybe so. However, from the psychological research and studies that underlie the TIGERS Team Culture Model (trust, interdependence, genuineness, empathy, risk and success), if you have a narcissist on your team, you are well aware how lack of empathy cultivates morale problems which in turn sparks conflict, resulting in lost productivity.

So, why would Yoffe insinuate that everyone is narcissistic? From TIGERS research, socialized behavior starts at birth and advances throughout life. There is a period of time in the maturation process where the child is fully dependent on caregivers for assistance and well being. And, there is a turning point when the child matures from self involvement and need gratification (narcissism) to recognizing the needs, wants and comforts of others.

However, according to brain researcher, Bill Harris, when needs are not met and events not reconciled and left behind, the emotional and cognitive maturity level of the individual stalls. For example, if a small child is not comforted when he or she is hurt, it is difficult for this individual to comfort and have compassion for others as an adult. If children are ignored, left behind, or tumble into insignificance when new siblings are born, they will do anything to gain attention to feel important. If feelings are ignored or a child is shamed for having feelings or must stuff them to appease an anxious parent, they are unable to access their feelings, develop compassion for themselves and others or develop emotional intelligence. If rich lessons that come from frustration and failure are used to shame a child, it becomes difficult for them to comprehend what frustration and failure means for others, to emotional resilience, and learning from mistakes.

As a result, anger, shame and guilt form blocks that build a wall of emotional pain.  Sometimes the blocks are small and self reflection, self understanding, self compassion and forgiveness make it easier to reconcile and mature. And, if these smaller emotional blocks do not impede a person’s ability to understand the feelings and circumstances of another person, I take issue with Yoffe’s assertion that everyone seems to be narcissistic.  That said, blocks on the extreme side, however, often require a ground shaking event, personal humiliation and serious loss to crack the wall to dismantle the blocks to access the pain, to forgive so a person can grow.

According to Yoffe, “people with narcissistic personality disorder act as if they are special beings who are exceptionally intelligent, accomplished, beautiful, or sexy (or all of the above), to whom lesser people (pretty much everyone else) must bow.”

Since most job interviewers lack the professional psychology credentials to identify narcissism or other empathy disorders, a few simple questions that shed light on a job candidate’s empathy skills have a better chance in exposing accomplished people with the empathy to contribute to sustainable team cohesiveness.

Therefore, what other questions could you ask in a performance interview to glimpse a job candidate’s empathy skills if maintaining excellent morale, good conflict resolution and superior team communications are a job recruitment goal?  Here are three.

  1. What did you learn from your last failure?
  2. When was the last time you chose to be happy rather than right?
  3. From your experience, what have you found that resolves conflict the fastest?

Empathy and the curiosity to understand others is a measurable selection criterion for team member recruitment. And, it is important to screen team culture applicants for emotional maturity and the ability to empathize before hiring them whether their resumes and prior work history looks stellar or not.

5 Responses to Empathy: Why it is important

  • Beth Gibbon says:

    One of the things I also remind myself is to keep my mind open. I observed this from older employees in my firm who are disgruntled. They have a fixed view of what is wrong with the company and blame their lack of promotion on the younger employees. But only if they opened their mind to what contribution and initiative their company needed from them to be considered for promotion—instead of bringing down the moral of new employees.

    I think there is a lack of empathy towards the company from older, disgruntled workers. But ‘maybe’, the company (thru the boss handling these people) also did not have enough empathy to care for the professional growth of these people. Empathy is needed from both sides—-but what do employees do if the lack of empathy is coming from the management side?

  • Stephen Sala says:

    If only HR and Operations Managers would read this article and not hire team leaders and Supervisors who lack empathy! CSR work is tough and having an un-epathetic team leader just makes it impossible. I’ve been in customer service for 2 years and let me tell you that I’ve met so many narcissistic team leads who are more of an obstacle than a help to the group.

  • Allan Locke says:

    Hi Dianne,
    I’ve read an interesting article about Narcissism and Empathy and this paragraph caught my attention: “They are finding that there is no substitute for narcissistic leaders in an age of innovation. Companies need leaders who do not try to anticipate the future so much as create it. But narcissistic leaders—even the most productive of them—can self-destruct and lead their organizations terribly astray. For companies whose narcissistic leaders recognize their limitations, these will be the best of times. For others, these could turn out to be the worst.” (Source:

    With that said, maybe instead of absolutely not hiring narcissists managers or executives, the company with the help of HR can instead institute systems that will enable the company/team to benefit from the strengths of narcissists while at the same time minimizing the negative effects of narcissism on other employees.

  • Mark Dryden says:

    But don’t narcissist also have a critical role to play in the success and growth of companies since they are most driven to succeed, competitive, and are often charismatic—-like Steve Jobs for example?

    I understand the value of empathy but I think narcissism has great value as well in leaders and is not all negative. Hence, maybe companies should not completely weed out narcissistic geniuses but find a way to manage their inherent distrust and grandiosity.

  • Pingback: Bullying – An Empathy Disorder From The Playground To The Workplace |

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