Can you empathize with the people you work with?


To succeed in today’s working world, there are many emotional and interpersonal skills that must be mastered. The most important of which may be empathy.

Who wants to work with someone who is arrogant, insensitive or self-absorbed? Someone who only thinks of themselves, and is completely unaware of how their attitude impacts others? The answer is pretty clear: people who completely lack empathy and a sense of self-awareness do not make good co-workers. In fact, there is some evidence they will ultimately become disposable.

Case in point: In my book, You, LLC, I tell a story about being hired by a large multinational firm in Peru that was engaged in a rather significant merger. We were asked to help the firm blend the cultures of the two organizations, and manage the termination of some employees, including some executives.

At one point, we met with the management team of the acquired firm. Most had worked for this company for a very long time, and were understandably anxious about how the merger would affect their careers. The lone standout was a senior executive who seemed genuinely unconcerned about his future.

In an interview, this executive said he wasn’t all that worried because he was the only one in the management team with a master’s degree from a well-regarded foreign university and, most importantly according to him, was the only one in the group who spoke English fluently. He was very sure that he would survive the merger.

It didn’t take long before we learned, however, that he was also very arrogant and conceited, and had little empathy for his co-executives. In fact, for many years he had never missed an opportunity to let his colleagues know that he was better than them. His utter lack of empathy in this difficult time in his company’s evolution was troubling to say the least.

Thus, it was hardly surprising when, a few months later, we found out that the manager who lacked any semblance of empathy was the only member of the management team to be terminated. Despite being a talented and experienced professional, people did not like working with him because he had little in the way of what we call “emotional intelligence.”

This executive’s fate should come as no surprise to anyone. These days, empathy is becoming one of the most desired traits in business leaders.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal examined the decision of several very large companies to institute empathy training for their managers. Companies like Cisco Systems Inc., Breakthru Beverage Company and Ford Motor Co., have found that when managers are sensitive to the emotional well-being of the people they are leading, there are palpable improvements in engagement, retention and productivity.

The WSJ article cited a 2011 study by the Centre for Creative Leadership – which surveyed more than 6,000 business leaders from 38 countries – that found managers who demonstrated high degrees of empathy were able to build better relationships, and generally outperform less empathetic leaders.

The trend line is pretty clear: It’s almost impossible to have a productive and sustainable relationship with someone who has an attitude of constant superiority, and who has no idea how this attitude affects others.

Doing the right thing, being sensitive, valuing, thinking of and respecting others are the building blocks for good interpersonal relationships. These are also the keys to making us more employable, and building a desirable personal brand.

Conversely, as the executive from the Peruvian company demonstrated, failure to build these qualities into your day-to-day professional disposition can ultimately be career limiting.

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