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Atticus, Alanis, and Why We Learn Empathy Then Lose It

Empathy is the key to happiness after all.

With 53 different jobs under my belt, I’ve seen my share of bad bosses. I’ve also seen some co-workers who undermine their colleagues every chance they get.

Part of the reason people yell at, gossip about, and undercut others at work is their fear that they themselves are in danger of losing their job. In other words, they’re afraid they suck at their job—and the only way they can get ahead is to cause others to fail.

That’s the exact wrong way to get ahead, I’ve learned. Customers buy from companies that put their customers’ needs ahead of their own.

Successful companies know this fact and push employees to make pleasing their customers their number one priority. In other words, successful companies reward empathy: “the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference…” as Wikipedia puts it.

Or, as Atticus explained it in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Put yourself in your customers’ skin—or even your boss’s—and you’ll never suck at work. Even if you encounter a boss or co-worker—or more than a few—who doesn’t appreciate your focus on doing right by your customers, you’ll be sure to find an even better-paying job just around the bend.

Quick Takeaways

  • Empathy isn’t born—it’s made.
  • Transform your workplace with empathy.
  • If you can’t transform it, exit gracefully.
  • Grow your career—and your business—with empathy.

Empathy Isn’t a Genetic Trait—It’s an Acquired Skill

Many people—maybe you’re one of them—believe that empathy is something you’re born with. While it’s true that some children seem to spring from the womb with uncommon kindness, for most of us, like the cantankerous Scout in Mockingbird, it’s something we must learn.

Don’t take that from me, though. According to recent research at Cambridge University, as science editor Sarah Knapton reports in The Telegraph, only ten percent of the differences in their subjects’ empathy came from their genetic makeup.

The researchers compared DNA samples from 23 and Me, a popular DNA testing company, against psychological tests that measured each person’s empathy quotient (EQ). Not surprisingly, women scored higher on their EQ than men, though their DNA was nearly the same.

Those findings mean that, even if you came bursting from the womb demanding the lion’s share of your family’s attention and pitching a fit when you didn’t get it, you can still develop your empathy level to at least 90 percent of that sweet, people-pleasing teacher’s pet you loved to hate as a kid.

Social factors, like your environment and how your parents raised you, have a big impact on your empathy level (which may explain women’s higher scores). But even if you didn’t have a parent like the fictional Atticus, you can change your empathy level by finding a mentor who will lead by example—who will be the wise leader you never had.

In a Bureaucracy-Riddled, Workplace, Be the Change

I realize that not all bosses will listen to reason. Some are so stuck in the last century that they can sit there with a stack of data right in front of them and still ignore all the insight it provides.

But it’s worth a try. Push back against bad ideas with facts, data, and numbers.

Show your boss the kinds of data that show beyond a doubt that when businesses practice empathy, their revenue rises. If your boss takes off the reins and lets you run free with marketing and sales practices that put your customers’ needs before your own, both you and your company will be a success.

Exit Toxic Work Environments Stage Left—As in “I Left”

If, however, management doesn’t invest in its own success, you’re on a fast track to disaster. Believing otherwise is something I call the “Illusion Point.” It’s the point at which you shove your knowledge and passion into some storage area of the mind and succumb to the corporate version of the Stockholm syndrome.

You’ll find yourself treating others’ ideas like management treats yours. The sooner you exit that situation, the faster you can build—or rebuild—your empathy.

That’s happened to me more times than I’d like to count. I once took a job at a pizza parlor. The boss stuck me in a broom closet with a portable TV and made me watch four hours of instructional videos. They didn’t even ask if I were claustrophobic.

A broom closet. That was about as far from empathy as Pluto is from the sun. I walked out of that broom closet onto the street that day and walked into a better job not long afterward.

It goes without saying that if you’re in a toxic environment, staying there will send your own empathy levels into a nosedive. If you’ve done all you can to push back against a brain-dead bureaucracy, you might want to polish up your resume and browse ZipRecruiter and Indeed while you sip your morning coffee.

Find a Company That Values Empathy—and Grow Your Career!

Companies that boost customer satisfaction with as little as five percent can realize a profit boost of up to 95 percent. On the flip side, American customers that deliver poor customer service lose upwards of $62 billion every year.

If you want to further your career, you want to interview with companies who value customer satisfaction. Companies that listen—and respond to—their customers’ pain points. Companies that exude empathy with everything they do—from marketing and sales all the way to the C-suite.

If You’re a CEO, Turbocharge Your Company with Empathy

To realize the bottom-line benefits of empathy across the board in your company, you must transform your company to become a customer-centric, empathetic organization at every level. First, learn how to practice empathy on a personal level.

Model that empathy in everything you do. Listen to your employees. Listen to your customers.

Teach your employees how to put empathy at work to boost their performance—and their career track. Find a cutting-edge data analysis program to track the effects of your new customer-centric approach.

Finally, watch your revenue rise and your stress level plummet as you put the magic of empathy to work on your workplace.

So what do you think? Please consider picking up your copy of Mean People Suck today, and get the bonus visual companion guide as well. Or check out our services to help evolve your culture. And I would be thrilled to come present to your team on the power of empathy!

This article originally appeared on Mean People Suck.

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