A couple weeks ago, Seth Godin wrote a blog post about empathy. (If you don’t subscribe to Godin’s blog, you should. His posts are brief, insightful, and one of the best things I find in my inbox every day.) Since the post is so short, I figured I’d just paste it right here for you:
Empathy doesn’t involve feeling sorry for someone. It is our honest answer to the question, ‘why did they do what they did?’
The useful answer is rarely, ‘because they’re stupid.’ Or even, ‘because they’re evil.’ In fact, most of the time, people with similar information, similar beliefs and similar apparent choices will choose similar actions. So if you want to know why someone does what they do, start with what they know, what they believe and where they came from.
Dismissing actions we don’t admire merely because we don’t care enough to have empathy is rarely going to help us make the change we seek. It doesn’t help us understand, and it creates a gulf that drives us apart.”
When Seth’s post hit my inbox, it really got me thinking. This month I’ve been writing about the challenge faced by HR (and bosses too) to make their employees happy, productive, and want to stick around. Two weeks ago I made an extensive list of tips for managers to succeed in nurturing employee happiness, but I think I’ve missed one essential practice:
I touched on this a bit with Molly Owens’ tip (CEO of the online personality assessment website, Truity) to learn more about your team. But Owens was strictly speaking from a strengths and weaknesses standpoint. Understanding strengths and weaknesses can help you predict how someone will fare on accomplishing a task, but predictability and empathy aren’t the same thing.
Empathy allows us to be gracious with others when they don’t meet our expectations, and to understand people’s actions based on their wants and needs. Our desire for their happiness is what makes us willing to meet those wants and needs, and help them find a way to accomplish their goals. If we can safely assume that happiness is linked to having one’s needs met, and if understanding others helps us meet their needs, then empathy may be our most essential ingredient for nurturing happiness in others.
But building off of Godin, I have another “why”…
Why should we care why they did what they did?
Off the top of my head, I can think of three reasons.
Reason One: The Manipulator Knowledge is power. Understanding how people tick makes them easier to manipulate and get what you want from them. But this Machiavellian motivation doesn’t help our case for empathy and happiness.
Reason Two: The Profit Seeker Happy employees are more engaged in their job, which leads to more productivity—research has proven this statement. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make your people happy and have them do a better job. But this motivation can be easily tainted. If the only reason why you’re trying to make your people happy is to bump up profits, then be prepared for them to see right through you. No one wants to think that the only reason someone values them is because it will win him or her more money…
Reason Three: The Supporter This person is genuinely interested in the happiness of his or her employees and colleagues. We spend so much time together; why wouldn’t we want the people who we spend so much time with—whether considered friends or purely workmates—to be happy? By understanding why they did what they did we can work better together, communicate clearer, and understand what others need in order to flourish.
To nurture employee happiness we must have an understanding what others want and need. Why? Because wants and needs are two catalysts for people’s actions. Is this person acting unhappy because they need more feedback? Recognition? More resources? More structure? More flexibility? Someone to listen? Like I said, empathy allows us to be gracious with others when they don’t meet our expectations, and to understand people’s actions based on their wants and needs. Our desire for their happiness makes us willing to meet those needs, and help them find a way to accomplish their goals.
Godin’s call to, “start with what they know, what they believe and where they came from,” might strike you as too personal for the workplace. That’s ok, everyone has their boundaries. You don’t have to press anyone to say what they aren’t willing to share, you just have to have open ears. I think a large part of empathy is the willingness to accept that you can’t know everything about someone, the mindfulness not to make hard assumptions, and the eagerness to listen.
With open ears, maybe we can shrink that, “gulf that drives us apart.”