Empathy: more than a feeling

In a fast-paced business world governed by profit margins, the value of intangible assets such as ‘emotional intelligence’ are easily overlooked. But organisations are realising 
that creating a contented workforce could be vital to their success. Vision reports…

We all know the feeling of buying an item only to find it’s faulty or broken, or just not the right thing. The disappointment and annoyance are matched only by a sense of foreboding at the prospect of a possible unproductive call with a nonchalant customer services centre. Or sometimes there is another more pleasant feeling – one that results from having your query answered not just calmly and efficiently but with an air of genuine sympathy. Any irritation that you may have felt in the first instance quickly evaporates, giving way to a sense of feeling understood and valued.

It was such an experience that led Dr Rosalind Picard – the pioneer of the field of affective computing – to investigate the role of emotion in our decision making. Her method was to attempt to teach emotions to computers. Then after one negative customer-service experience in which a colleague commented that he was sure a computer could display more empathy, Picard decided to attempt that as well. The program was designed to respond in one of three ways: it either ignored the feelings of the slighted customer, asked for their feelings but did little about them, or displayed empathy.

“Their subsequent behaviours showed that they were much more likely to go back to that company if empathy was displayed, even if they’d initially had a bad experience,” she says. “And you see this in a lot of workplace research; if a complaint is handled well, those people actually become much more loyal than those who didn’t even have a complaint. There is real power in just acknowledging people’s feelings and communicating awareness of that, and computers can definitely achieve something similar.”

Emotional intelligence

Little wonder then that the world of business is now embracing the buzzwords of empathy and “emotional intelligence”. It is now generally accepted that effective leadership may start with a dose of humility and understanding, rather than an overbearing authoritarian approach. “The human ability to figure out what matters and address it is vital, and it makes all the difference for a successful workplace,” Picard says.

But just what is emotional intelligence – and how can it be harnessed? Unusually, the answers came from a Google engineer. When Chade-Meng Tan published Search Inside Yourself last year, he was garlanded with praise and credited with laying “the groundwork for a new conversation about work and what work means to us.”

His book shows that the key abilities in the workplace – to influence, to achieve, to take on challenges and to have confidence in your work – are actually emotional skills that can be shaped and improved with mental and attention training. He suggests that with such training, you become able to calm your mind on demand in stressful situations, then observe and master the emotional experience so that you can approach the situation with an objective perspective. All of which can be invaluable in the workplace.

“There are at least three compelling benefits of emotional intelligence in the business world,” he says. “It is reflected in stellar work performance – emotional competencies are twice as important as cognitive ones, even among engineers. Emotionally intelligent leaders and managers are far more effective. Finally, happy workers are a great asset because they work better in teams, provide better service to customers, and are generally more creative and productive.”

It’s perhaps no surprise Tan has been called the Zen Master of Google. But though some sceptics might think it sounds like touchy-feely nonsense, his evidence is convincing. When Tan started up a course for emotional intelligence at Google, thousands signed up for it. The results suggest Google enjoyed enhanced creativity, productivity, and, his over-reaching goal, happiness. The book was the obvious next step, and has already been translated into 17 languages.

“The book is about becoming successful in a way that also increases personal goodness. People generally like to succeed, especially if they can succeed as good people,” he says.

Better understanding

But is emotional intelligence just another nebulous workplace fad? Michael Lorrigan is the Managing Director of Spearhead Training, based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They work with over 2,700 different companies of all sizes, and such has been the interest in how to develop emotional intelligence that they now hold monthly courses in both cities.

The tag line for the course: “Inspire, Motivate and Lead... By Understanding And Mastering Your Emotions”, promises that after two days, participants will have greater control of their emotions and thus their way of communicating. This cultivates a greater understanding of others’ feelings, and the ability to lead them with success. The nub of the emotional intelligence argument is addressed half-way through day one: “To be aware of how to demonstrate empathy in most situations.” But Lorrigan does sound a note of caution.

“To be honest, everyone’s jumping on emotional intelligence, and that may have something to do with the fact that, when I first came out here, there were a lot of authoritarian managers. We are certainly moving away from that trend and now people are more inclined to think that developing emotional intelligence is the way forward. Emotional intelligence does give you a tendency to think more about the people you employ, and about enhancing their work life, which is fine, but will it always get you results? You need to have a balance, I think.”

So for all the research and best-selling books, Lorrigan still believes that success as a manager, a leader or a team member is still tied up with a good dose of common sense and basic communication skills.