In the modern world, leadership is about encouraging colleagues to take responsibility, express their opinions, and develop their influence within the business. In times of change, empathy towards others is essential to identify their needs and support them as best as possible.
The term “empathy” was coined in 1883 by the German philosopher Robert Vischer to designate the type of relationship that a subject has with a work of art to access its meaning. Then Sigmund Freud used it to talk about the emotional dimension which characterises the mechanism according to which the bodily expression of an individual triggers in a mimetic way the same emotional state in another individual (listening, attention, trust).
Empathy consists of putting oneself in the place of another and perceiving what they are feeling, through active listening, attention, and open-ended questions. This requires both humility and determination.
In 1933, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim developed the concept of “social solidarity” to define the need for cohesion between individuals within a society or a business in order to ensure social order and stability. Social solidarity, therefore, refers not only to collective responsibility for promoting well-being within a group but also to the consideration by a government or corporate management of the needs and interests of citizens and colleagues. In times of anomie – according to Durkheim, a period of crisis, loss of values, and bearings – the practice of empathy is necessary and welcome to avoid dislocation, fear, and chaos.
Empathy consists of putting oneself in the place of another and perceiving what they are feeling, through active listening, attention, and open-ended questions. This requires both humility and determination. A recent study in the Harvard Business Review (February 2022), based on Durkheim’s theories, reports on the four rules of empathy used to develop solidarity and a more harmonious corporate culture.
The four rules of empathy
- Accept that you don’t know everything. It is difficult to look beyond our own interests if we have prejudices and preconceived ideas about others. We are used to interacting with others on the basis of our own patterns and knowledge by expressing what we think we share with them. It is therefore key to listen, observe, step back and learn from a different perspective.
- Accept the radical difference. Empathy is not about saying “I am like you,” but rather about accepting contradiction, friction, and conflict. There may be deep-seated differences between colleagues, as well as within a family or with one’s own friends. Empathy is not about eliminating differences, but about integrating and exploring them, to best learn how to find solutions.
- Develop commitment. Empathy involves a commitment to listen, understand and identify the problems and issues of others, without prejudice or flippancy. You must be willing to practice feedback in order to empower your colleagues and give them more autonomy. It is, above all, a matter of respect, both individual and civic, to support colleagues in a constructive and positive manner.
- Foster a sense of community. Empathy is not pure altruism; it enables both you and your colleagues to shine. When your point of view has been heard, considered, and addressed, you have the advantage of feeling part of a group, which goes beyond you and strengthens the community.
It is up to us as individuals to practice empathy by engaging in conversation with colleagues we do not yet know and promoting trusting relationships. Developing empathy within a business certainly requires energy, but above all gives back a hundredfold and helps to build a healthy, innovative, dynamic, and motivating corporate culture!
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