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Creating a more empathetic workforce

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Creating a more empathetic workforce

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It’s fairly easy to see how a social business will be well stocked with people that care for their colleagues (and indeed anyone else).  As is often the case of course, this apparent obviousness hasn’t stopped various researchers looking to explore this further.

For instance, a 2008 study from Berkeley highlighted the size of the challenge.  It found that the more powerful someone was in relation to their partner in the study, the less likely they were to show compassion for their problems.

Studies have also shown that powerful people typically score worse at somewhat basic emotional tasks such as being able to ‘read’ emotions from someones facial expression.  Indeed, it emerged that powerful people would not even look at their partner as much as their less powerful peers.

Similarly, studies have shown that powerful people can often dominate conversations, interrupting discussions and monopolizing air time.  The study found that when people were given positions of power, they dominated discussions, thus squashing attempts by other members of the team to give their point of view.  This urge was only generally resisted when leaders were reminded of the importance of getting input from all members of the team.

Thankfully, a recent study suggests that empathy is something that can be taught, even amongst the most ardent narcissist.  The study saw participants shown a video of a lady describing her experience with domestic abuse, or alternatively a woman describing a particularly traumatic breakup.

Half of the participants were explicitly asked to put themselves in the ladies shoes and imagine how they were feeling.  The other half were simply left to watch the video as normal.

As you might expect, the participants who had earlier scored highly for narcissism were generally unmoved by the stories, either externally or indeed via their heart rate.  The interesting thing is however, that when a narcissist was instructed to be more empathetic, they actually showed normal levels of understanding and sympathy, both in self-reported feelings and their pulse.

“We hope that the present findings represent a first step toward better understanding of how narcissists can be moved by others, thereby improving their social behaviour and relationships,” said the researchers.

Suffice to say, the sample size used was small, but it is nevertheless worth pursuing further.  A study published earlier this year found that narcissistic leaders with a strong goal orientation actually dragged down the performance of the group they were in.  That study was at pains to point out a note of caution however, as when empathy was paired with low levels of self-control, it prevented those people from remarking on poor behaviour from their colleagues.

Whilst it would appear to be that empathy is a positive trait, and indeed can be influenced to an extent, it has to be paired up with conscientiousness in order to be truly effective.

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