Supporting Harmony at Work

The Manager Tool Kit:

Empathy at work

Why “walking in other people shoes” is not empathy.

Understanding the position and experience lived by others is a very complex skill.

Driven by our instinct to belong and desire to create shared-meanings we rely on generic interpersonal & communications skills in order to create a connection with a team member or a colleague.

As the person describes in words what is happening in their personal or professional life, we cannot help but to think how their experience compares with ours.   We search closely into our direct experience as finding a link can warrant understanding and comprehension.

In my experience empathy requires “emotional imagination”: the ability to imagine how we personally would feel and react if confronted by a specific situation.

However, this exercise, this thought experiment, may not create a valid understanding as the historical emotional make up which characterises us is different.

Scenario 1:

You have been appointed as new manager you an established team. Team Member M, who also applied for the role, is challenging directly your authority.

As a competent manager you would be looking to use “empathy” and try to understand the reality for the team member and define a suitable and appropriate ground of connection.

You would ask “How would I feel if I were to be passed over for a promotion?” “How would I feel if the new manager is my junior in experience?”

Just these 2 questions are asked in a moment when you, a newly appointed manager, are channelling confidence, strength and energy to engage with the new role.

Can we paraphrase and ask if a hungry lion is able to put himself in the shoe of a reindeer?

The 2 questions ask to compare experience of unsuccess and perceived ageism– two extremely personal experience which, when combined, can create a multitude of possible outcomes and life expectations.

Scenario 2:

A team member is having a private challenge and, during conversation, we might want to show support by saying “I know how you feel.” Often, we do this even if we do not have direct experience of the challenge, we are just “putting ourselves in the person shoe”.

But – can we really walk in 4 inc heels?

In reality, we might actually being denying the other person the right to express their personal point of view and story, as they would feel discouraged if they believe that they cannot add anything new to our knowledge of the world.

Scenario 3:

You are line manager of a Junior supervisor and your role is to coach him/her

The challenges s/he will face are quite “stereotypical” of the role: for example managing time-keeping.

Our own direct experience, in this case would be extremely useful and we could say “when I was in your place” as a way to guide and give practical examples on how to handle specific situations. But is the situation really similar or just comparable? Did you have a senior manager to guide you? Or how large was your team? Did you have the same level of management education that the junior supervisor has gained?

In all 3 scenarios, is impractical to attempt to imagine the exact combination of life experience, even when we have direct personal or professional experience, seems therefore to suggest that is is not possible to create a sense of true connection with a team member.

The great American Novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” suggests that

First of all," he said, "if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." (3.85-87)

I believe that this sense aims exactly how IMPOSSIBLE is to climb on somebody skin and walk around it and that empathy is the ability and emotional “awareness” to understand the differences with others rather than attempting to focus on limited and confusing similarities.

When confronting any of the above situation the right step towards an empathic connection is to open the conversation and allow the other person to give us information on “how they feel” as this experience is occurring to them, not to us.

Empathy occurs when we allow ourselves to consider and address those differences with the other and within our own world of differences local small and relevant point of connection, upon which a strong interpersonal relationship can be build.

For the Line manager coaching a junior supervisor the understanding of the difference is actually the crucial point: the learning is not on how we solve the specific challenge but how we have got to the conclusion, to the solution of the problem – which can be solved only by ensuring the team achieves a good attendance.

The learning preferences of the junior supervisor are key to his/her ability to succeed in communication with the team and with the line manager.

A counter – argument to the theory that empathy begins when we acknowledge the differences rather than the similiaries is when we are considering the effect that our actions might have on others.

How would a reindeer feel next to a lion? How would I feel if somebody would tell me “I know what you are going through” or “This is how to deal with this specific situation, I know because I have done it before you”.

To use another commonly used sentence we would say “treat others as you wish to be treated” – the well known golden rule.

The application of the golden rule is based upon the basic application of empathy and, correctly, relies upon the idea that, in most cases, we would not take a decision that would be harmful to ourselves. Similarities are here to be considered rather than differences.

In my opinion, however, to try to imagine how we would feel if we were to be treated in a specific way does not attempt to go far beyond our own direct knowledge and experience, as imagining to walk in other shoes. The thought experience is in fact based on “us” with all the knowledge we posses of our own preferences and experiences.

In summary, when taking decisions in management, I strive to adopt best judgement in considering the effects the decision or change might have on other, by considering my own preference first. I surely avoid to implement changes that I would not be able to cope with myself or that I would find morally and ethically questionable.

I wouldn’t however ask my decision-making process to stretch by including considerations regarding other interests as I would not be able to tally correctly and account for all the possible variation of experiences and expectations within a team.  

Dublin, December 2017