January 6, 2016

High Achievers Practice Empathy


As a high achiever, you make sure to stay on top of your game in every way. You keep up with new developments in your industry. You increase your knowledge with advanced coursework, and improve your skills with executive coaching and training. You increase efficiency through improved processes and systems. You continually hone your expertise. You take care of your health, meditate, and make time for the things that matter to you most.

Yet, with the 21st Century landscape changing at hyperspeed, our personal best isn’t always enough. How do we sustain our positions, lead our organizations, take ourselves and our teams to the next level of achievement?

Practice empathy.

Humans are social beings and we learned early on that our ability to cooperate and collaborate is both safer and more productive. Civilization has evolved mightily since our first efforts to organize, and the way we work has evolved, as well. Over the past 100 years, we’ve moved from the industrial age, in which people were dispensable parts of a greater organizational system, into the knowledge age, in which the focus shifted to human capital, and one’s unique value as a knowledge worker in the age of information. Expertise became the new, high-demand commodity in a global economy as knowledge moved with people across firms and across borders. Specialization increased, and silos emerged and grew.

Yet expertise can only take individuals, and their organizations, to a finite point. To move beyond what we know as experts, we need to connect with others in new ways, forming open organizations and networks of knowledge that spur us to arrive at new solutions and create better outcomes.

Enter empathy.

What is empathy, anyway?

  • Affective empathy enables us to tap into the feelings of others. Our brains are actually primed to do this via what has been identified as our “empathy circuit.” We’re immediately able to interpret the facial expressions and body language of others, and tune into what they are feeling. (Next time you’re in a sports bar, watch the faces of the viewing fans to see affective empathy in action.)
  • Cognitive empathy allows us to step into another’s shoes and understand the other’s perspective, world view, beliefs and experiences.

How do we use empathy to excel? Innovation occurs when people come together and share information, like the varied pieces of a puzzle coming together to form a new whole. Empathy spurs innovation and social change. Empathy creates space for people to understand one another, connect and collaborate. Creating empathic organizations gives rise to discussions and solutions that would not otherwise take place. We’ve seen this at work in technology, medicine, and space exploration, and it is making its way into businesses and professional service organizations. On the flip side, we’ve also witnessed the devastating impacts of failure to share knowledge across teams or organizations.

How do we develop empathy?

Listen, especially during difficult conversations. Active listening is a state of complete engagement with the speaker, without the interference of one’s own thoughts or positions. Active listening doesn’t require agreement; it opens the door to understanding, which creates connection. Connection improves relationships, facilitating collaboration and improved outcomes, especially when diverse perspectives are engaged in the process.

Cultivate curiosity. Assumptions, biases and beliefs, block empathy. Cultivate curiosity by asking questions. We can move beyond our default thinking and expose our own (mostly unconscious) assumptions, biases and limiting beliefs by asking questions that invite alternate perspectives.

Get out more. When we move beyond our usual spheres and engage with people with whom we would not normally come into contact, we’re exposed to new thinking. Many “accidental” solutions and eureka moments have occurred this way. You don’t have to travel far. Visit an adjacent neighborhood or even a different department in your workplace. Bounce ideas off of people in other fields of study, social circles, cultures, backgrounds, and age groups. Invite people in your own field—perhaps even your competitors—to exchange ideas and collaborate.

Empathy is a game changer. It breaks down silos, engenders loyalty—both externally from clients and internally among co-workers—and creates space for new thinking, new ways of seeing things, and new solutions. Are you ready to play?

Judith Gordon is a principal of Organic Communication providing innovative programs for organizations and high-achieving professionals driven to thrive professionally and personally, and author of Successful (Happy) Lawyering: Increase Your Bottom Line and Well-Being One Insight at a Time.