Empathy: The Surprisingly Crucial Business Skill

Leaders can become more effective by understanding what others are feeling, writes emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman.

Emotional intelligence remains a key ingredient in the development of corporate leaders. In this series, best-selling author and Korn Ferry columnist Daniel Goleman reveals the 12 key skills behind EI. This is an edited excerpt from his introduction to Empathy: A Primer.

Empathy means having the ability to sense others’ feelings and how they see things. You take an active interest in their concerns. You pick up cues to what's being felt and thought. With empathy, you sense unspoken emotions. You listen attentively to understand the other person's point of view, the terms in which they think about what's going on.

Empathic leaders get along well with people from very different backgrounds and cultures, and can express their ideas in ways the other person will understand. Empathy doesn’t mean psyching out the other person so you can manipulate them, but rather knowing how best to collaborate with them.

Consider this situation: At a tech company, there was a consulting division that had a brilliant systems analyst. He could solve problems that stumped everyone else. But, as someone there said, “We can never put him in front of clients.” The reason: He never made small talk. He never made human contact or connected with the client. He never even asked them what they thought the problem was. Instead, he'd just launch right into what he saw as a solution—and it turned off the clients.           

What that systems analyst lacked was the Empathy Competency.

We all know empathy matters in our personal relationships, but how does empathy matter for business? You need empathy to work effectively with other people, especially in sales and client management, on teams, and in leadership. Empathy is the core of the competencies in the relationship management domain of Emotional Intelligence, the basis for more complex relationship management skills, including influencing other people or having a positive impact, mentoring other people, managing conflict, inspiring them as a leader, and teamwork.

Executives who are good at perspective taking, a key part of empathy, do better at overseas assignments because they can quickly pick up on the unspoken norms for behavior and the mental models of that culture. Research at the Center for Creative Leadership found that empathy predicts better job performance for managers and leaders.

When executives take a 360-degree assessment of their Emotional Intelligence Competences that includes rating themselves as well as having other rate them, those skilled in empathy rate themselves much as others do (while those with the largest self-other gap have blind spots about their own weaknesses).

This is due to the impact of another Emotional Intelligence Competency: Emotional Self-Awareness, the foundation of EI. Having strong Emotional Self-Awareness means you're also aware of how others see you. You sense how they think and feel about you. You see how they perceive you. If you lack Emotional Self-Awareness, your sense of empathy is also impaired.

Executives with high empathy are better at keeping employees engaged, and employees with empathy give customers the very best experience.