Empathy is the foundation of all social skills. At its core, it’s the ability to discern what another person is thinking and feeling, as well as to respond appropriately.

Mirror neurons in the brain help us detect another person’s state. They are the physiological basis for experiencing what someone else is feeling. But that’s only half of the empathy experience. We must also choose an effective and appropriate response.

As you can imagine, in any organization, employing highly empathic workers has numerous advantages, including better customer relations, team cohesiveness and a more positive working environment. Research confirms:

  • Empathic salespeople and negotiators are more successful.
  • Waiters who display empathy earn nearly 20 percent more in tips.
  • Debt collectors with empathy skills recover twice as much money.
  • Empathic doctors make more accurate diagnoses and fewer errors, incur lower costs and are sued less.

Measuring Sociability in Teams

In order to have empathy experiences at work, however, people must have occasions to interact with each other socially. Social interactions greatly increase our effectiveness on the job.

Team interaction is so powerful that any increase improves group performance. Geoff Colvin offers a telling case study in Humans Are Underrated:

In a Bank of America call center of 3,000 employees, productivity vastly improved simply by changing the schedule of break times so that workers on the same teams spent more time together socially. When the bank aligned team breaks, productivity rose and turnover fell. Performance improved as workers had more time to interact with each other. The bank estimated a savings of $15 million a year.

Scientists are using new technologies to measure social interaction in organizations. Professor Alex Pentland’s Human Dynamics Lab at MIT invented a sociometric badge, worn on people’s clothing, that measures tone of voice, whether people face one another while talking, gesture frequency, and the ratio of talking/listening/interrupting. A sociometer doesn’t record the words people say, as they are irrelevant measures of social signals and interactions.

Organizations that use sociometers assert that social sensitivity in the workplace outweighs all other factors contributing to team effectiveness.

Social Signals

Our extraordinary ability to sense others’ feelings and thoughts relies on seeing faces, reading body language and assessing vocal tone. None of these abilities can be employed when we’re texting or using social media. There is some evidence that shows the next generation, known for its unprecedented dependence on technology, is showing lower empathy skills.

Each of us can learn to recognize the social signals we produce and perceive. We have innate empathic skills, but they weaken if we don’t use them.

CEOs often seem overly concerned with performance and bottom-line results in a rapidly changing, uncertain and disruptive marketplace. Long-term viability will require them to value empathy and human interactions. People cannot perform well without developing rapport and trust, talking about fears and emotions, and confronting colleagues without destroying partnerships.

“Relationship-focused success expands capacity and potential, and empathy is a business skill that actually grows when practiced and shared,” notes Cleary University President Jayson M. Boyers in a 2013 Forbes article. “Although it may be unlike any practice you have ever used within your business, empathy in the workplace creates and encourages sharing ideas free from the fear of ridicule. If we are to keep our businesses relevant and our consumers happy, we must embrace empathy and let it be the force that drives us forward.”

In the work I do in organizations, I hear about money and energy devoted to team-building exercises and other off-site events. But when you think about it, simply arranging lunch tables so that more people can eat together, or aligning team breaks so people can socialize together, can enhance our natural human tendencies to socialize, empathize and work well together.

Does this make sense to you? I’d love to hear from you. You can call me at 561-582-6060, let’s talk. And as always, I can be reached here or on LinkedIn.

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