According to Jamil Zaki, Stanford University professor, psychologists found that empathy has declined precipitously over the past 40 years in this country and around the world. This makes the work of organization leaders that much harder. Workplace leaders are people with purpose, goals and vision who spend a great amount of time cultivating constructive relationships to enhance productivity. They know that tolerating division is counterproductive. I believe empathy is the best way to help teams grow closer and work collaboratively.

Empathy is feeling with, not sympathy which is feeling for. Feeling with is sitting in the discomfort and helping a friend work through it. Whereas feeling for is acknowledging the discomfort but moving on.

According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary empathy is vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another, the action of understanding. My personal definition is the ability to see through the eyes, hear through the ears and feel the world as others feel it. On the other hand, it does not necessarily mean agreement. However, with understanding it is more likely that differences are not as great as initially thought.

This plays out in the workplace in myriad ways. Years ago, I worked as a commercial underwriter. That job pitied me between insurance agents and policy holders. The agent wanted the commission that comes with the policy and the client wanted the protection against potential lawsuits. Unlike personal lines (home and auto insurance), commercial insurance contained more risk. There is no experience history with new products and services. My role as a commercial underwriter was to analyze in terms of potential loss. If I were too loose with underwriting more policies would be written, but the risk of loss would be greater. An unacceptable loss ratio could cost me my job.

I lived in central Illinois while my agents worked in the Chicago collar counties. Every three months underwriters spent a week with their agents to see, hear and feel the world as agents and clients did. Those visits were eye-opening and emotionally taxing. It would have been much easier to sit around with other underwriters and talk about how selfish and unreasonable agents and clients were. Although more difficult in the short run, meeting with agents and other stakeholders in their environment resulted in better outcomes for the organization. Empathy pays! Change your thoughts, change your destiny!