Why Empathy Matters


(This is one of a series of posts on Give and Take by Adam Grant.)

Empathy, or the ability to put yourself in another person’s place, to imagine what they feel, is one of the most important features of civilized people. Without empathy, we get bullying, violence, and “victimless” crimes. Lack of empathy is one of the definitive symptoms that separate a sociopath from the rest of us. Empathy matters.

Empathy is hard-wired into our brains; scientists believe that it’s in part a function of mirror neurons, cells that help us experience something when we see another being doing it. We smile when someone smiles sat us, or tear up when we see someone cry. Dogs, monkeys, elephants and other animals have all shown what appears to be empathy in scientific experiments. More often, it seems, than many customer service representatives.

In Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, he cites a study of radiologists who were asked to read CT exams on a group of 100 patients. Three months later, after forgetting the CT exams, the radiologist were asked to read the exams again. One group increased their performance by 53 percent (meaning that they found abnormalities more often and identified them more accurately.) Another group’s performance by the same measures decreased by 28 percent. The only difference: the improved group received a photograph of the patient with the CT scan report. Just seeing the patient’s face made them perform better, to work harder to get it right.

When a doctor, customer service rep or caretaker can’t see the customer as a person, it’s much harder to feel empathy. It’s one of the reasons that charitable organizations show the faces of sick children or abandoned puppies; once you put a face on the problem you’ve created empathy in your potential donors. You’ve taken giving from an abstract concept to helping this child.

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When a service provider sees the faces of the person on the other line, they begin to understand the importance of the work they’re doing. It’s not just a failed cable connection; it’s the lifeline between a grandmother in a rural community and her grandchildren living overseas.

A report issued by Strategy & Company (formerly consulting firm Booz and Company), stated that 62% of Americans reported that if they had a bad service experience with a retailer or service provider, they would not purchase from them again. Lack of empathy can be costly to a company’s bottom line.

Some of the policies that the Strategy & Company report cited as problematic in customer service functions included:

  • Adopting a customer-comes-first ethos at the expense of employees (which makes them feel devalued; they often take it out on customers later)
  • Providing scripted responses for customer interactions, which diminishes responsiveness and flexible thinking on the front line
  • Relegating customer service to cost-center status, which places the emphasis on short call times rather than satisfied customers.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

  • Cath Burke, a UK-based trainer who offers communication workshops in London, offers these benefits of developing empathy:
  • confidence to have difficult conversations that may otherwise be avoided;
  • clarity about what I’d like and how to ask in a way I’m likely to be heard;
  • creativity in finding solutions that are satisfying to everyone;
  • giving supportive feedback;
  • being honest without hurting or offending.

Sounds like the way we wish everyone could communicate at work.

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