Three types of empathy for workplace leaders

Empathy does not get credit it deserves as key leadership trait in the workplace
Tuesday, October 27, 2020
By Dan Pontefract

In 2016 when Microsoft launched Tay.ai—an artificial intelligence bot hosted on a Twitter account—it quickly suffered one of the company’s most embarrassing moments.

Within hours of the launch, the Tay became wickedly rude due to a coordinated attack by hackers. Tay began spewing profane and racist comments, including a denial that the Holocaust ever happened. The world was aghast at the vitriolic hate it began to disseminate. The company was forced to issue a public apology and the team responsible was left with a customer relations nightmare. Just 16 hours after launch, Tay was taken offline.

A few days after the Tay debacle, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft entered the picture. Instead of berating the team responsible for Tay, Nadella chose the empathic route. In fact, he depended on three specific types of empathy in his dealings with the situation.

Wait, there are three types of empathy?

Columbia University psychologists Jamil Zaki and Kevin Ochsner define empathy in three distinct ways. Mentalizing is how we explicitly consider and understand someone else’s “states and sources.” Experience sharing is when we vicariously share “targets’ internal states.” The third type of empathy, prosocial concern, is when we express “motivation to improve targets’ experiences.”

While Zaki and Ochsner’s definitions are academically sound, we might take the liberty of refining them into plain language: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and sympathetic empathy. With further refinement, we can classify them ever further as head, heart and hands.

When we use our head, we are intellectualizing how someone else is thinking about a situation, problem or task. When we use our heart, we are embracing someone else’s emotions in a given scenario. And finally, if we use our hands we take sympathetic action on what we have gleaned from the head and heart metaphors. At its root, the three types of empathy are how all leaders should operate with their team members.

Back to Microsoft and the situation with Tay. The company’s CEO, Nadella, demonstrated all three types of empathy by first putting himself in the shoes of developers to understand how they were thinking and how they were feeling. He then took sympathetic action. He wrote directly to the group of developers responsible.

In an email he said, “Keep pushing, and know that I am with you.” He went on to remind them that the “key is to keep learning and improving.” In an interview with USA Today shortly after the incident, Nadella said, “It’s so critical for leaders not to freak people out, but to give them air cover to solve the real problem. If people are doing things out of fear, it’s hard or impossible to actually drive any innovation.”

Nadella cuts to the heart of the issue. If we do not exhibit the three types of empathy during our leadership, inevitably the team’s productivity will wane. Ever since the Tay issue, Microsoft has continued to press technological advancement through bots like Tay. The Microsoft Bot Framework, introduced in 2016 shortly after Tay, is now being used by more than 130,000 developers. I’m quite certain the success of the framework would not have occurred were it not for Nadella’s demonstration of the three types of empathy.

Sadly, empathy does not get the credit it deserves as a key leadership trait in the workplace. In their 2019 Workplace Empathy survey, technology firm Businessolver discovered that 82 per cent of employees would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organization while 85 per cent believe empathy is highly undervalued. 58 per cent of CEOs say they struggle with consistently exhibiting empathy in the workplace — and their employees agree: employees consistently rate their peers as more empathetic than their CEO.

Henry Ford was quoted in Dale Carnegie’s 1937 book, How to Win Friends and Influence People: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” Over 80 years ago, Ford put himself in the shoes of regular citizens and felt their pain. It was not a faster horse that was needed but an economical motor vehicle, something that could help others in society.

Empathy and the act of being more humane is mission critical for leaders not only during a pandemic, but in their everyday leadership style. When we demonstrate perspective or put ourselves in the shoes of others—using our head, heart and hands—there is a greater possibility for success. It makes for a more engaged workplace, too.

By being empathic, you are looking out for those you work with as well as those you might be serving while you are completing a goal. When we empathize, we are observant of patterns that may affect our desired result.

When we are empathetic, we have truly become a caring leader.

Dan Pontefract is the former Chief Envisioner at TELUS, and is a leadership strategist. He is the author of LEAD. CARE. WIN. How to Become a Leader Who Matters.

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