Corporate Business People Working Outdoors

Understanding others’ perspectives would seem to be an essential trait for business leadership. Yet most of us can share stories of managers we’ve known who are successful but not empathetic.

Dr. Adam Waytz of the Kellogg School of Management says that just as humans will sometimes anthropomorphize objects, conversely, we can dehumanize elements of our environment, including other people. At a panel on Understanding Others at the 2015 NeuroLeadership Summit, he said, “We don’t always treat other human beings like other human beings. In essence, we can fail to attribute others minds, not having the perspective that they have thoughts, beliefs, or feelings at all.”

Eventually, Dr. Waytz suggests, managers who fail to grasp what motivates their employees will do so at their professional peril. Managers commonly fail to understand their employees in three ways:

  1. We can have an “extrinsic rewards” bias. Dr. Waytz reminded of ample research showing that managers believe employees prioritize pay, while employees themselves valued intrinsic rewards, like mastery, autonomy and purpose. Yet companies continue to rely on “old-fashioned” financial incentives.
  2. Poor leaders can be ineffectual at influencing, which at some level is achieved through speaking to people’s emotions and intuition. They can fail to recognize that others may have different motivations than they do.
  3. Some leaders overlook the fact that people are motivated by empathy. People can be more engaged and perform better when they understand the impact of their work on others.

Dr. Waytz cited three reasons we may fail sufficiently to empathize:

  1. We have a tendency to “self-anchor,” meaning we fail to adjust our thinking to accommodate others’ experiences.
  2. We can be terrible predictors of how good we are at understanding others. According to Dr. Waytz, there is zero correlation between our self-assessments about how well we read others and how well we actually read others.
  3. Empathy takes brain energy. To understand another’s position requires us to make mental models of new perspectives, which draws on our brains’ executive functioning.

As for ways to to build empathy skills, we can actively pursue “perspective getting” by asking others for their input (instead of “perspective taking,” which may still keep us seeing through our preferred lenses). A manager could shift the quality of performance conversations, for example, by asking for employees to discuss the impacts of various corporate initiatives from their perspective.

Dr. Waytz recommended another option to build empathy: “Increase face-to-face communication. We can be terrible at understanding what others mean over email. And we tend to expect others to receive our messages with the exact mental nuances we have when we craft them. So take communications offline.”